Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reinventing Yourself as a Writer - 10 questions

Sometimes, you need to put everything on the table. Usually, writing that is meant to delight, provoke, and provide intense experiences does not come from incremental changes to your approach. It comes from daring change. It comes from reinvention.

If your writing life isn't everything you ever dreamed it would be, have the courage to leap into the unknown. Take a fresh look at yourself as a writer. Here are ten questions that might help:
  1. Are you confident? Voice may be the most valuable commodity for a writer, and it does not emerge if you are tentative. Yes, writers are moody. They have ups and downs. They have doubts. But finding a route to reckless abandonment and audacity at least one out of three times you sit down to write will transform your writing. Get mad. Get careless. Get your heart beating fast. And get the words down.
  2. Are you writing enough? Bad habits get in the way. Words become too precious. The internal editor comes alive. I have hundreds of posts in this blog to help you get the words flowing. Find a few to try. Then get to work. If your goal is 200 words, push yourself to write 300. If it is 2,000, write 3,000. At least once a week, write half again as many words as is your goal. Shake yourself up.
  3. Are you writing in the genre you should own? Almost all successful writers stick to one genre. It isn't necessarily the genre they love. It is the one where their talents show and they can stand out. Reconsider your choice in these terms, not imagined terms. Not based on friendships. Not based on sunk investments. Then read, write, and work toward mastery of the genre that fits who you are as a writer.
  4. Are you writing the best stories? Great stories are based on great concepts. With one sentence, you should be able to get someone from the chosen audience to say "wow." And "gimme." It's fine to write some chapters and do some plotting without working out what the logline should be, but don't write a whole book unless you have the time to restart it from scratch (which, apparently, is what Stephen King does). Pay real attention to that premise.
  5. Are you demanding enough? Writing is rewriting. Kristan Higgins says one of the most common mistakes for writers is sending out the manuscript before it's done. And done means getting the distance to look at your work objectively (usually by putting the manuscript aside), and then making it as good as it possibly can be. And keeping at it even when you are anxious to show it to the world.
  6. Are you taking chances? Write what you don't know how to write. Write things that will shock you family and friends. Write what hurts. Write what embarrasses you. If you spend a week without writing a scene that upsets you, feels wrong, scares you, or makes you squirm, you have wasted that week and taken a step backward in your life as a writer. It's supposed to be fun most of the time, but not all of the time.
  7. Is writing integrated into your life and identity? Do you see yourself as a real writer? Do you make notes, explore new issues, chat with fellow writers, tell people you're a writer, and find ways to turn your day-to-day chores into opportunities to grow as a writer? This is not a hobby or an avocation. It is who you are.
  8. Does writing matter enough? Your work should provide insights to you and your readers. It should change lives and lead to reinterpretations of your past. It should point toward the future. If your writing is not remaking you as a person, take up gardening
  9. Is writing the priority? Writing needs to be first on your to-do list most of the time. Yes, life can get in the way, but this is your calling. Treat the work as sacred. Don't let it become secondary for long.
  10. Are you reading challenging work in your genre? I believe in beach reads, and I have my own list of writers I turn to when I just want to have fun. But I also explore new writers and take on ones I know will be difficult, will impress me, will accomplish things that seem impossible, and will make we dissatisfied with my own work. At least half of everything you read should make you want to try something new, awaken you to higher standards, and goad you into pushing your limits.
In my own work, I look beyond these ten questions and challenge every aspect of my writing and my writing life. I create new plans and look for new books and courses. I put myself in uncomfortable positions. I invite disaster. Sometimes, things fall apart for a while. I stumble. I miss deadlines. I get frustrated. And scared. But I don't regret any of these attempts at reinvention, and I often discover talents, skills, and themes that I hadn't imagined. Art is so big, getting stuck in a rut -- even one that is bringing success -- is cheating yourself. Don't get comfortable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Prizes and Props - Objects that enhance your story

One way to bring a reader into a story is through specific objects. In film, you just have propmaster gin up an impressive Ark of the Covenant or a sled named Rosebud. In a novel, you need to imagine the item well, get the words right, and feature it in the right context. Before The Maltese Falcon was a film, Hammett had created the bird in his novel. Before film existed, Arthur needed to extract a sword from a stone.

When the object is central to the plot, it might be considered a prize. Prizes need to be described in ways that is clear enough to capture the imagination while still leaving out enough details so the reader can gain some ownership. Ideally, such an object will not be mundane. It will connect with myth as surely as the Holy Grail. Getting the words right means including materials, textures, and perhaps a sense of weight.

Oddly enough, the prize also needs to have good, strong, active verbs attached to it. Usually, this is connected with what the prize can do for whomever can capture it.

The context in which an object is presented is also vital to making it memorable. One tradition is to reveal a little bit at a time, but, as with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it may be that a mini-lecture of the history and properties would be needed.

INDY It all has to do with the Ark of the Covenant.
(The Army guys look mystified)
The chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.

Now it’s the Army men who are impressed. 

An Egyptian pharoah stole the Ark
from Jerusalem and took it back to the city of Tanis. A short time later, Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a year. But before that, the Pharoah had the Ark hidden away in a secret chamber called the Well of the Souls. Which is where the Staff of Ra comes in.

Indy moves to the blackboard and makes a quick sketch to give a rough idea of the system as he describes it. (And we get a glimpse of what an interesting and enthusiastic teacher he must be)

The timing has to be early enough so the readers are not frustrated but not before it would be interesting or understood to be important. As a writer, this is where the best choices for narration need to be made. The narration may need to take place in a fresh setting and it may need to be broken up in some way. In dialogue, arguments and confusion between characters can help you to avoid lumps and add turns that engage the reader.

What I call props are other things that are not at the center of the story but raise questions, identify characters, provide a clue, refocus attention (and, in a mystery, my legitimately mislead the reader), and make space more specific.

Props, in some way, draw attention to themselves. While they shouldn't overwhelm the story, they are meant to be noticed. The same aspects used to make a prize distinctive can be used to make props stand out. A few good props, handled with care, can add pop to a story as surely as a powerful metaphor, a poetic line of narration, and a memorable quip. And, like these other items in your literary bag of tricks, they need to be used with restraint and placed where they can enhance rather than distract from the story. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fast Revision 4: Language and mechanics

With the aim of more productive rewriting, we've looked at taking stock of the completed draft, reviewing plot, missed opportunities, story holes, and story logic, and using theme to unify and taking a fresh look at characters, pacing, and scene construction. Most of the rest is easy. In fact, much of the remaining work can be handled by engaging good freelance editors to point out needed fixes.

The major exception is language. At this stage, the manuscript is in good enough shape to consider all the wonderful possibilities for metaphor, similes, imagery, alliteration, and a host of other literary and rhetorical devices. Like too much spice, these can be overused. A good rule of thumb is to work them into the most critical moments of the story and to make them appear natural. A device that stops the reader and stands out works against your storytelling.

Although the whole manuscript deserves another reading (aloud) where you polish the language, it is probably okay to move onto the mechanical areas now.
  • Run a spelling and grammar check, but don't count on these to identify all the problems.
  • Ruthlessly delete adverbs and improve the verbs as needed.
  • Get rid of junk words like just, a bit, some, and very.
  • Root out repetitions of words, especially unusual words that call attention to themselves. 
  • Look at variation of sentence length. Too much of the same can be a problem.
As I work through this step in revision, I use Autocrit as a quick way to highlight potential problems. I do not let its suggestions rule my choices. I consider them judiciously. In practice, I probably accept about a third of the suggestions.

When I've done all this, I have the computer read the full manuscript (text-to-speech) to me. This always reveals more problems I've missed, most of which are easily fixed. Then I read the document aloud one more time and do a final polish of the language.

That's it. My process may not look much like your process. And I'm continuously updating my process, adding in new steps that might help, and reworking those that might be improved. I also don't let my process stand in the way of what feels right for the manuscript. As with raising children, developing a story depends on the individual and requires a lot of creativity and improvisation.

I hope, however, that this series on Fast Revision has provided a useful example of what a process looks like and a few details that you might consider as you work to go from first draft to a manuscript you're proud to submit.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fast Revision 3 - Tuning the tale

If you've been following along through Revision 1 and Revision 2, you now have a good, solid, mostly consistent story. I call this the green copy, meaning you could do a quick spellcheck and send it to early, tolerant readers. At this stage, they could answer key questions -- does it grab my attention, does it lose my attention, does it confuse me anywhere, and is the ending satisfying.

Anyone who reads in your genre should be able to answer these questions and their answers should be valuable. They will all highlight what's working and what's not working. What you should not worry about is any suggestions on how to fix the problems. Even if the suggestions come from writers, they are not likely to be useful.

Whether you choose to expose your work to people at this point or not, you need to keep working. The next thing I usually do is try to identify the theme. It should be visible, and, once identified, it can be used to evaluate the scenes in the story to see whether they contribute to the theme, could contribute with rewriting, or don't contribute or work against the theme. Themes are frustrating because they tend to devolve into truisms like "there's no place like home," but going scene-by-scene to bring the story into alignment promotes unity, which smooths the tale in a way that is otherwise difficult or even impossible.

I'm plot-centric, so my next step is focusing on scene construction. Does each one have a beginning, middle, and end? Are there enough beats or turns and do they come often enough? Does each one have a hook (even a soft hook) at the beginning and something at the end (it need not be a cliffhanger) to keep the reader turning pages? Is there the right mix of action, narrative, and reflection? Does the character act in a way that creates change? Does the change foil or complicate the character's quest?

You may wish instead to focus on your characters at this point. Do they act reasonably? Does the protagonist grow and change? Do supporting characters highlight the struggle the character is going through? Does the protagonist have agency throughout, or do things "just happen" to him or her? Does the character feel strong emotions the reader can relate to? Does the character avoid advancing the plot through stupidity?

Once the work on scene construction and characters is completed, the whole manuscript probably needs a full reading. Chances are more inconsistencies have cropped up, and there will be new opportunities worth developing. These can be marked during the reading and then fixed. Also, during this stage, attention should be paid to the pacing. Generally, the pacing should increase as you move toward the ending. This can be accomplished through shortening scenes and chapters, but also through including less narrative and streamlining the language. Mostly, the changes and emotions need to come at a more rapid pace.

Next time, I'll conclude this series by digging into polish and mechanics. And, as a caveat lector, please remember, my way is not the only way or necessary the right way for you. Respect your own process and what your intuition says about how you should revise your manuscript. Use this as a prompt to develop new ideas and make sure you aren't skipping any steps.