Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fast Revision 2 - Pencils ready for big stuff only

Last time, I finished up with a printed manuscript marked up to show story problems, including unnecessary passages, major inconsistencies, holes, dull parts, failures of story logic, and missed opportunities. Let's tackle these one at a time.

The first and easiest thing to do is to strike out passages that are not needed. Note, I never obliterate them and strike them from memory. Rarely, they reveal their value later, entering the story with different intent, prompting new ideas, or as the bases for scenes in a different manuscript. So I just put lines through these on the paper manuscript now. (Later on, I will cut and paste them into a clearly labeled deletions file.)

Next, I fix the major inconsistencies. Some of these, like time and calendar problems, can be avoided entirely by planning and note-taking during the composition phase. But I always seem to end up with someone acting out of character, inadvertently revealing a clue too early, or acting familiar with a character who's new. I get lucky at times and come across easy fixes to these problems, but, in most cases, they are pieces that impact other scenes. So I take them on, one by one, most important to least, and make the repairs. I have had my intuition jump in with one key change that can fix several of these. It happens more that you might expect, so be open to getting a break like this. It makes things easier and helps to give a more organic feel to the fixes.

Filling holes comes next, and these rarely solve themselves at this stage. Often, I just write what needs to happen in synopsis form, rather than composing the whole scenes.

Dull parts make me cringe. It is always easier to quiet things down than it is to amp things up. Often, I have to rewrite the whole passage without looking at the original. But before I move to that, I do something that is much simpler. I read the chapter (or chapters) as if the scene is not there, simply edited out. About half the time, the scene turns out to be unneeded or to have only a few elements that are required but can be put into other passages. So don't do the rewriting unless you have to.

My go-to method to check story logic is an approach from Jeffrey Kitchen, who uses Writing Backwards This only works if you know your story well enough to do a detailed outline, but now is not a bad time to be ready to do that. 

I actually do the story logic with a numbered list, so I can easily create lists that go forward or backward. This has many uses as I continue revision (including checking pacing and writing a synopsis), but there is one of immediate interest. With this simplified view of your story (a list of 50 to 100 scenes), you have an overview that reveals opportunities -- scenes you can hit harder, twists that are nascent, and places where you can drop in tougher challenges for your protagonist.  

At this point, I'm getting into the gorp of rewriting. While most of what I've mentioned is likely to apply to your manuscript, this is not the ultimate set of instructions. Some of my ordering has to do with how I like to work and how my mind works. You're a different person, so play around with these ideas and create your own path to revision. 

More on this next week. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fast Revision 1 - What do we have here?

There is a concept in economics called sunk costs. These are the dollars you have already invested and cannot recover. Bad behavior, like continuing to repair a car that's a lemon or pouring money into a doomed business, come out of the psychological attachment to these lost investments.

Revisions are the sunk costs of writing. The time you spent cleaning up grammar, making dialogue sparkle, and adding hooks to scenes and chapters that are not needed are lost, but the investment can make writers hold onto these with both hands. (The same is true for doomed books, but that's too depressing to consider.)

Of course, time spent is not completely lost. Learning takes place, especially early in a writer's life. But a productive writer finds way to approach the material that reduce big investments in time that won't pay off and are likely to create too much devotion to words that must be cut.

This is why are recommend a "big to small" approach to revision. Essentially, this means beginning by looking at the story as a whole -- whether it works at all and whether there are scenes or chapters that must be cut or added. Then following through with reexaminations of things like character, conflict, and scene construction. Looking at pacing, and ending with polish and the mechanical elements (spelling, grammar, wordiness, etc.).

Your order may not be my order. For instance, some people need to do a spellcheck of the roughest manuscript before they return to it. But, overall, going through dedicated drafts is much more efficient for most people than taking on all the elements of revision in one draft.

For me, the first step is preparing myself. I need to let the manuscript cool off for a month or so, otherwise, I can't see it clearly. I need to accept that lots of wonderful scenes I fell in love with are really a mess -- and fixing them is what revision is for. I need to be prepared to cut, cut, cut.

My second step is printing out the whole manuscript, and then sitting down and reading it from beginning to end in as short a time as possible. I take notes, but as few as possible. I actually budget myself to what I can fit on one page. I don't write on the manuscript itself.

My third step is firing up the computer and having the manuscript read to me (text-to-speech is available to everyone, and it is marvelous), about ten pages at a time, while I follow along and make small notes -- usually just check marks -- on the printed copy. I am looking for story, holes, unnecessary passages, inconsistencies, missed opportunities, dull parts, and failures of story logic. But I'm doing it at warp speed. I actually have text-to-speech cranked up to its fastest rate.

When I have done all of this, I make a copy of the manuscript file, label it with the revision number (2.0) and usually the date, and begin to change the text.

I'll talk about more steps next time.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Or Else – How to raise the stakes in a story

A thief escaping from the police and the stolen car hears a baby crying in the backseat. A woman applying for her dream job is fired from her current position, which she needs to keep her home. A baseball player who has to get a hit to win the game finds out his estranged son is in the stands.

Stories need stakes. And they need to be vital to the protagonist. But they also need to be important to readersand made more important as the story progresses.

Even good writers who always get the fundamentals of goal, motivation, and conflict right, often dont pay enough attention to stakes. From the very beginning of the story, stakes need to be high enough and universal enough in their appeal to engage the audience. While we all want to win, a story about a kid who wants to win a spelling bee is not compelling in and of itself. There has to be a downside. There have to be consequences for failure.

Sometimes, as with a survival struggle, the consequences are obvious and real to the audience. There may be opportunities to raise the stakes by, for instance, highlighting unfinished business like an apology that needs to be said, but the audience is likely to hang on to the end even without alteration of stakes because the obstacles get tougher. But this doesn't work for many stories. So here are some thoughts on ways you can raise stakes.

Now it's personal. This is tried-and-true, and you can almost set your watch to the time in a show like Law & Order where are the search for justice becomes personal because one of the characters has a building relationship with a victim or the crime becomes associated with a family member or a partner gets hurt and must be avenged.

Investment. In the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first reaches the Emerald City and is denied entrance, she says, "But we've already come such a long way." We know what she means because we've been along for the journey. Her making this investment explicit is brilliant and precludes a search for other options.

The goal becomes more valuable. The Ark of the Covenant isn't just a prize artifact, It's a doomsday machine.

The character is more vulnerable. This is a standard for the romance genre. As the story goes on, the love interest becomes more essential to happiness and the protagonist is more exposed in terms of revealed needs. It is common for needs to go from physical to emotional to something that touches on fate, identity and the soul. Life without this person becomes unimaginable.

There are a lot of other ways to raise stakes shifts in power, changes in what the characters value, adding a potential loss of something vital through failure to potential gains coming from success, and moving down Maslows Pyramid to more fundamental needs. (Adding trivial, me too stakes not helpful is not helpful and can dilute the story. It's important not to diminish stakes or to add new ones that are less vital than those that are already known.

One more pointall mistakes must be clear to the reader. It is good to do what Dorothy did and make them explicit. This is not a place to get artful.

Stakes and rising stakes provide one of the most effective ways to keep readers turning the pages. Get them to fret. Get them to worry. Make it excruciating. They'll love you for it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Balance of Powers - Thoughts on building sexual tension

A friend of mine from Hollywood -- after looking at a query tied to a book series I'm working on with my wife -- suggested I watch Castle. She recommended that I write a TV pilot because our work has the potential for the kind of sustained sexual tension that's found in that popular TV series.

Now, while ideas may be the currency of science fiction and puzzles may be the currency of mysteries, sexual tension is the El Dorado of romance. What could I learn by watching this series? It turns out, the answer was pretty obvious. There is a power struggle between the two romantic leads. Both have things the other wants and both have vulnerabilities. And, most importantly, if either were to surrender to romance, the exposure in terms of prestige, employment, and self-identity would be too much. The stakes, without deep and abiding trust between the two parties, are just too high.

Spoiler alert: let me get specific about Castle. With his writing career at a crossroads, and writers block threatening, Rick Castle needs the inspiration of real crimes and enough participation in and appreciation of the real process of solving crimes to create the stories in his next series—featuring a stand-in for Detective Kate Beckett.

Detective Beckett benefits (somewhat) from Rick Castle's wealth and connections. She also is under orders by her boss (and apparently up the line) to show Castle consideration.

When each enters fully into the other person's world, there is potential for humiliation. Detective Beckett can be demeaned in front of her peers by Castle's remarks and actions. And we see that happen, so the threat is not idle. Detective Beckett makes a point to going to a book signing where she's able to show her power to knock Castle off track in his world. (And, with such a powerful hero, the writers are very clever to include his family members who are able to ground him and expose his weaknesses.)

So, both characters need each other and both characters are vulnerable in an interlocking relationship that is not optional and ongoing. It is this relationship that both ensures interactions over a long period of time, with interesting variations, and makes full commitment to romance (and sex) problematic. Any time they edge up to the line between work and love, they get reminded of how badly things could go. They feel pain.

Of course, this sort of a guide to sexual tension has uses beyond romance. Most obviously, a buddy movie has the same elements with friendship replacing love. An argument could be made as well for stories where the bond between an individual and the group or between competitors or between a hero and the villain is central to the narrative.

For me, an immediate outcome of this analysis was an understanding that both characters throughout need many opportunities to take action that matters. Their agency must be demonstrated. In addition, the stakes need to be present and clear in almost every interaction.

So, I've taken my lesson, and I hope you'll take the opportunity to watch a story that has sexual tension (or at least, tension around the friendship), and see what it has to tell you about your own work.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pseudonym - Who are you, really?

There are lots of practical reasons for using a pen name. Alice Sheldon renamed herself James Tiptree Jr to get past a bias in SF against female writers. Paul Linebarger became Cordwainer Smith because his role in international affairs and psychological warfare might have been compromised if some people had read his novels. When Nora Roberts is not writing traditional romances, her name becomes JD Robb, and that spares her readers confusion.

All of this is valid and provides some fun for those in the know, but, often, a pseudonym is freeing. Obviously, for those who write edgy work, like erotica, the anonymity can be of value. (It can be essential for those who write both erotica and kids' books -- yes, I know these people.) But I'm looking beyond that. A pen name can allow an author to discover and explore a different part of him or herself.
  • A character - Cary Grant (Archibald Leach) said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." All writers like to create characters. Why not write as one? Using a pseudonym provides the opportunity to build a complex character and to use that character as a vehicle for creating art.  
  • A focus - Your name might not be appropriate to your chosen genre. Mario Puzo probably wouldn't have worked as the name of a romance writer. Could you imagine picking up a picture book written by John le CarrĂ©? Would Delilah Marvelle, a regency romance author, make sense as a writer of thrillers? The right pen name can brand an author for readers and help the writer (especially one who writes in different genres) get into role, switch perspectives, and find an appropriate voice.
  • A might have been - We all have made essential decisions in our lives. Using a pen name is an invitation to try out a different life, one that has very different boundaries and strings attached.
  • An alter ego - A pen name can become a springboard for exploring a dark, embarrassing, or extreme aspect of ourselves. (Or for dark people, the opposite, perhaps.) 
This last is the most intriguing because it provides permission that might otherwise be lacking. And, without the inhibitions and expectations tied to the personas and obligatory roles we have in the real world, something new -- and authentic -- might emerge.