Friday, June 28, 2013

Simplify Your Story 1 - Major pillars

Clever, contorted, complex prose drives away readers. Unless you have rabid fans or you've become an honored author or you don't care about having an audience beyond your friends, don't do it. Or edit it out.

Most readers want to be absorbed into a book. They want a page-turner. They do not want to be confused or forced to reread. So clarity is a fundamental value for any writer who aspires to having a large audience. It's okay for drafts before the final to be jumbled, fuzzy, and self-indulgent. They are the prototypes and experiments, not the production models. But the last draft, no matter how deep and challenging the subject matter, needs to be clear and (mostly) effortless to read.

The clarity of your story depends on three major pillars: the beginning, the goal, and the ending.

The beginning is how you make your first impression. For some reason, a lot of amateurs choose to unleash the pyrotechnics here, evoking everything literature profs wallow in. This is no place to fall in love with your poetry, to strain a metaphor, or to make promises you don't intend to keep. The beginning has enough challenges -- setting up the world, establishing the genre, providing the story question, introducing the main characters, and getting things going -- without complicating the job. And all of this needs to be done without making the reader wade through a lot of heavy narration.

Charm. Seduce. Engage. Use simple sentences and make it moment-to-moment. Don't backtrack or reflect. Don't worry about what the reader "needs" to know (or, worse, what you want him/her to know). Above all, don't worry about impressing the reader. Readers don't show up for writers; they show up for stories.

Your audience can only root for the protagonist if they know what the goal is. And I favor Michael Hague's view that there should be a visible goal. If you can't imagine a photograph that shows success -- the outlaw lying dead in the sand, the astronaut stumbling out of his pod alive, the athlete clutching her trophy, or the lovers in an embrace -- try again.

This doesn't mean a story can't have internal goals (it should) or that the protagonist needs to be aware of the true goal (what he/she needs rather than what he/she wants). And it is fine to have the main goal evolve and change. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy goes from wanting to justify Toto (and herself) to wanting to leave home, to wanting to get back home. It all follows logically, with no confusion. It also nicely raises the urgency along the way. And her enabling goals (getting to the Emerald City, getting the broom of the Wicked Witch) are also clear. (In a larger sense, Dorothy always wants to be secure and -- as represented by Toto -- intact.)

Having the goals change to reflect changes to the character and including tactical goals is just fine. But if a reader cannot state the goal at any point of the book, or if the shift to a new goal is difficult to explain, that's a problem. And, from my reading of unpublished manuscripts, it's a common problem.

Some protagonists seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, constantly picking up and discarding goals, abandoning tactics before they come to fruition, circling back to earlier goals, and changing their minds. They also seem to make unexplainable choices, what a mentor of mine called "advancing the plot by stupidity." They pursue multiple goals at once, seemingly trying to edge forward on many front simultaneously. Multi-tasking heroes are crazy-making.

The ending is where the writer closes the deal. Like beginnings, endings need to do a lot of things at once -- paying off the investment the reader has made in emotions and time. I go into detail on creating endings in other posts, but, above all, the audience must know what happened. Did the protagonist succeed or fail? Did he or she grow and change? Does success make the world better or worse? Does the ending make sense?

I'm all for nuances and the bittersweet and unintended consequences and even a few blanks for the reader to fit in. However, 1) none of this should be unintentional, so if a beta reader praises an accidentally complex ending, fix it, and 2) there still should be a Hague photograph, even if its deeper meaning is ambiguous. One more thing: unless a sequel is built into the story, tie up the important loose ends. Don't frustrate the reader.

Of course, there's a lot more to simplifying a story. Sub-plots need to support the main story. Viewpoints need to be consistent and properly selected. Language needs to be cleaned up, refined, and distilled. Failing in these areas can pull readers out of your stories and make them stop reading. I'll cover these aspects in future posts.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Every Other Friday - Denise Alicea

Here's what Denise Alicea says about herself:
Born in Manhattan, New York and raised in Connecticut, I found that I was more interested in what went on in the past than in the future. This makes me a huge history buff. I’ve always enjoyed reading books starting from ancient history, fantasy, science fiction, poetry, and, of course, romance. I also loved the arts, so my first love was once drawing and painting until I found a new medium that would inspire me to try something new.

What led me to write? I started to write poetry when I fifteen years old. This was all due to a family member sending me a poem that she had written, and it sparked a fire that has never gone out. I began to write my heart out, and went from writing poetry to my own stories. I love to write with a bit of everything from romance, humor, and, of course, adventure. Everything inspires me from art, people, and music.

I was published at fifteen years old in my own community and gained a few finalists nods for my poetry and stories alike online through various writing communities. When I am not writing, I am blogging at my personal blog or my shared blog at The Pen & Muse.

Tell me about what you're writing.
My newest short story is a time traveling romance named "Fireworks." After the death of her beloved grandfather, Sarah is left alone to take away his things when she finds an interesting picture of a friend of her grandfathers. Sarah’s never met the man of her dreams no matter what she has tried. One magical night will change everything, literally. What’s a girl from New York going to do with a man from the 1940′s?

What drove you to write "Fireworks"? Who did you write it for?
I'm a big fan of the early nineteen hundreds. I also wanted to try my turn at a new short story with time traveling aspect with romance. I'd done it before with my young adult short story, "Consoling Angel." I also was asked to do an short for Dark Castle Lords anthology and did it with great enthusiasm, as I did one for Christmas.

What were your biggest obstacles?
Writer's Block. Isn't it everyone's? I find it so hard to write on command, and, when I try to, it ends up becoming crap. So I try to go back to the things that inspire me whether it's me going for a walk, watching a movie, listening to music, or just reading.

What are your productivity tips?
Some of my favorite productivity tips are to always have a small pad and pen together. You never know when the inspiration is going to strike. Also if you have a smart device, whether it be an iPad or iPhone, use it to your advantage! Find apps and use the notepad on them to write when you get inspired. Most of them provide so many apps on the go. Some of my favorites include: Pages, Evernote, and Final Draft.  

Purchase links:



Wednesday, June 12, 2013

First Anniversary!

I’ve been exploring productivity on these pages for a full year now, and I'm still having fun. From the beginning, I knew that I would cover the basics – tips on preparation, drafting, and rewriting. More themes emerged, based primarily on feedback and requests, including dealing with distractions, collaboration, and refilling the well.

Bigger Stories and Writing Tools took on lives of their own – leading to courses, as well as multiple posts.
Gwen Hernandez deserves special mention. Her guest post on Scrivener accounts for about one in seven of my pageviews and continues to bring me new readers.
Thanks also to the many writers who have been featured in Every Other Friday interviews:
Alex Benedict, RC Bonitz, Gerri Brousseau, Dani Collins, Eileen Cook, TL Costa, Barry Crimmins, Jennifer Fusco, Kate George, Kourtney Heintz, Kristan Higgins, Sara Humphreys, Marian Lanouette, Katy Lee, MH Mead, Melanie R Meadors, Carter Phipps, Stephanie Queen, PJ Sharon, Joy Smith, Doug Solter, Tawny Weber, Casey Wyatt, and Bob Zaslow.
And, of course, thanks to all readers, especially those who leave comments.
Believe it or not, I have more to say on the themes that have carried the blog this far. More authors have agreed to be interviewed, and I hope to have more guest posts. And I’m curious about new ways to become more productive: Helpful forms and questionnaires, useful tropes, journaling help, crit groups, mentors, and more. Of course, I welcome suggestions on new topics or deeper explorations of old themes.
For those who geek out on numbers, here are a few statistics:
151 Posts
Over 26,000 pageviews, with 4,600 in the last month
Pageviews for almost 100 countries
Top Ten Posts
  1. Guest Post - Write Faster with Scrivener (Gwen Hernandez)
  2. Plotting for Pantsers 2: Build your storytelling muscles

  3. NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

  4. Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

  5. Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

  6. Writing Prep 5 - Distraction Number One, Husband Interruptus

  7. Rewrite 8 – Stronger Verbs for Better Stories

  8. Every Other Friday - T.L. Costa Interview

  9. Do You Listen to Music When You Write?

  10. Draft 9 - Let's Get Physical

Thanks again. I’m having a great time, and I hope you are, too.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Every Other Friday - Alex Benedict

Alex Benedict is the young adult author of fantasy fiction with a romantic twist. Her "Broken Fins" series starter, SO DOWN I FALL is a dark re-imagining of THE LITTLE MERMAID.

In another life, Alex writes historical romance under the pen name Alexandra Benedict. Her work has received critical acclaim from Booklist and a rare and coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly. Romantic Times awarded her a "Top Pick" review. All of Alexandra's historical novels are translated into various languages. 

To learn more, visit:

Tell me about SO DOWN I FALL.
SO DOWN I FALL is a contemporary re-imagining of the classic fairytale THE LITTLE MERMAID. In it, sixteen-year-old Grace attempts suicide after the death of her beloved mother, only to be rescued by a mysterious young man: Adam ... a merman now in human form. Adam is also on the run from his abusive father, the Sea King, and together he and Grace must conquer their emotional demons.

What drove you to write SO DOWN I FALL? Who did you write it for?
I was originally in the process of writing a historical romance, when I had a vivid dream about a merman dying in the sea, clutching a boulder, turning into the foam on the ocean because a human girl had not returned his love in time to save his life. When I awoke, I set to work on the first draft of SO DOWN I FALL. That was in spring 2010. This wasn’t my first experience with “dream” writing. Like in the past, the imagery of the merman was so powerful, I felt I was meant to write the story. The tale is intended for teens, but I’ve received a lot of fan mail from adults, so it’s really for all ages.

What were your biggest obstacles?
The biggest obstacle was creating the heroine’s voice. This was my first attempt at first person narrative, contemporary teen fiction. Previously I had written in third person, historicals, and adult main characters. But as I mentioned above, I felt I was meant to write the story even though it was so far away from my comfort zone.

I must have re-written the first three chapters a dozen times in an attempt to capture Grace’s authentic voice. My historical roots were showing with tags that sounded dated and very much unlike a teenager. I really had to work hard to push aside my experience as a historical writer and start from scratch. In other words, learning to write all over again. With each submission--and rejection--from editors, I received valuable feedback that helped my re-shape my characters.

I also hired an editor to go over the first three chapters. She was an experienced editor and young adult author herself, so her help was invaluable. It took almost two years (I kid you not) to complete the first three chapters to my satisfaction. Once I had truly captured Grace’s voice, I completed the rest of the book in about six weeks.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bigger 17 - Shocking revelations

Almost all stories depend upon uncovering information that is hidden in some way. The obvious example is when the killer is revealed in a mystery story. In a single moment, the pieces come together for the reader, the detective demonstrates his or her brilliance, the culprit get the blame, and the innocent suspects are let off the hook. (A few readers may have guessed who the killer is before the reveal, but, we hope, not by too much.)
Of course, if it is not done well, the pieces might not come together or the answer might be so obvious it is disappointing. A revelation that is obvious is not shocking and one that doesn’t fit the evidence or leaves too many loose ends isn’t fair to readers. So we already have two important criteria: fairness and astonishment (or at least an element of the unexpected).  
Another genre that has revelations as essential is romantic comedy. These depend on a secret (usually a lie) by one of the two lovers. It has its own consequences, but it also keeps the lovers from coming together fully.
Notice that the romantic comedy revelation, which usually comes near the end of the story, is different in some ways from the mystery revelation. Readers/audience members not only know it early on in the story, they MUST know it early on. This creates irony and tension. It makes bizarre behaviors credible.
Tootsie provides a great example. The lie Michael (as Dorothy) is living – pretending to be woman makes him unavailable to his heterosexual target of affection for Julie. And, to protect his identity, it puts him into bed with Sandy (a betrayal) and into the arms of Julie’s dad. It’s a lot of fun, and the revelation sets off fireworks, but notice two other important criteria: the point of view (who the revelation shocks) must be interesting and the secret revealed must be consequential, even life changing, to the protagonist. In Tootsie, Julie is shocked and so are Michael’s coworkers. This ties to the consequences, where love and livelihood are both threatened by the revelation.
Notice that revelations, especially shocking ones, are key ingredients of major plot points. Smaller reveals can be part of smaller turns, and, to an extent, each bit of evidence gathered in a mystery is a revelation.
Revelations, of course, are not restricted to mysteries and romantic comedies. Think of how science fiction and fantasy stories disclose facts and relevant details about their worlds to create a sense of wonder. And even a drama like Death of a Salesman, which is grounded in the real world (sometimes this is called straight or mimetic fiction), builds emotion by gradually revealing family secrets and the pain it has engendered in the characters.
It is fair to ask why secrets are kept from readers. A police report or a medical diagnosis or a news story (inverted pyramid) or even a recipe puts the facts out there right away. In reporting, failing to do so is a sin called “burying the lead.” But none of these genres is intended to create emotion (though they may). Fiction always seeks to engage the hearts as well as the minds of the readers. And, while withholding facts may be a disaster in a police report, readers of fiction expect us to withhold or hide facts. There is an agreement between writers and readers. I will tell you lies that deliver truths and you will suspend disbelief willingly.
Truth – it’s the ultimate revelation.