Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 3 - The rest of the story

Once a pantser has read the full manuscript, it's likely his or her brain will be overwhelmed by a riot of revision opportunities. There's a temptation to try to fix everything at once. It needs to be resisted. Revision is most effective when it's done one layer at a time. Working from big to small helps shape the story in effective ways. It also increases productivity because the writer avoids unnecessary line editing -- there's no reason to polish up a chapter that eventually will be cut.

While it’s not the only option, it usually best for those who write by the seat of their pants, to make their next step adding text to the manuscript.

Note: it's important to engage your imagination fully at this stage of revision and to avoid having the internal editor become too powerful. In a sense, this is additional drafting more than it is revision. With this in mind, it may be necessary to take deliberate steps to reenter the story.

There are two things two look at now. One is completing undeveloped scenes. The other is filling holes that revealed themselves in the read through, adding whole scenes and chapters. So, the first step is to inventory each of these listing those scenes that feel incomplete and making a separate list of scenes that need to be written. For the latter, trying to describe each of the missing scenes in at least one full sentence.

These two lists are important guides for the next step in revision. The easiest job to take on next is filling out the undeveloped scenes. This has a natural advantage because the work has already begun and there are immediate cues that allow the writer to reenter the story.

Filling out the undeveloped scenes probably deserves a post all its own, but here I'll just suggest a few questions you might ask. Does the same have a beginning, middle, and ending? Does the scene have “scene and sequel” structure? Does the scene begin in the right place and find an ending in the right place? Are the passages with description appropriate to the genre and complete enough to allow reader immersion? Does the scene raise interesting questions? Does the scene move the story forward?

As for scenes that need to be written, these are almost completely drafting tasks. Even if you have sufficient text for your genre and you haven’t discovered any holes, don’t skip this step. Adding scenes provides a more deliberate way to write that is slightly different from the original composition work, and this reveals more of the story. As a rule of thumb, I try to list at least ten scenes to add to the manuscript and to write no less than 10,000 additional words. This might be too much for too little for you, but setting an aggressive goal before this additional drafting begins will help to push you into new creative areas that will improve your manuscript.

Now it may be that only two to three holes show up in your manuscript read through. What should you look for in terms of a list that extends to 10? Here are some things to consider:

       Look at your hints list and see it that suggests new scenes.
       See if potentially important scenes are referenced in your manuscript, but haven't been written.
       Take advantage of an interesting character, and give him or her a scene that features their personality.
       Look at the key scenes or story beats within your manuscript and write seems that would occur just before or just after these.

Throughout this step, don’t worry about trimming your manuscript. Just add to the words. The real cutting is best done after analysis for story logic, which we'll look at in the next post.

My first How To Write Fast book will be out later this year. As part of that, I'm looking for opportunities to present seminars, speak, and guest blog. I can be reached at howtowritefast@gmail.com
Want more? This course begins next week.

Lost in the Story

Dates: Jun 6- 27, 2016 Cost: $20
Course Description:
A workshop on reader immersion.
We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending. The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 2 - Listen to your story

If you are a pantser, you probably have had the experience of scenes and chapters pouring out of you so quickly, you can barely capture all the elements with your typing and/or dictating. If you wrote every day and kept your internal editor sedated, you may have reached "the end" with a novel or a script in a couple of months or even a few weeks.

Now, after letting the draft sit and gaining some distance, it's time to get back to work. What do you do first? Print the whole thing out. Hold it in your hands. Feel the weight of your accomplishment. If you can, put yourself back into a moment of creation and enjoy the experience. Congratulate yourself.

Now, before you do anything else, write these notes to yourself:
  • My draft has all the magic it needs to become a wonderful story.
  • It did not emerge from my head as a polished work of genius that should be compared now to stories by my favorite authors or even my last completed manuscript.  
  • The first drafts of my favorite authors sucked. So did all my previous first drafts.
  • Because the manuscript I hold is a first draft, it is full of mistakes, boring scenes, cringe-worthy prose, and random nonsense.
  • I will be patient. I will be tolerant.
  • Everything can be fixed. Everything.
Okay? Now you're ready to get to work. Read the story. Read it quickly. If you can get through the whole thing in one sitting, that's perfect. (I never can, but I keep up a good pace.) Here's my exact process -- I highlight full scenes, run text-to-speech at its fastest setting, and listen. As I listen, I make coded notes on the manuscript:

! - I like this.
? - This is confusing. (A note may need to be added to indicate why.)
M - More needs to be written. Add description, emotion, reflection, and/or beats that fully explore this scene.
V - This is the perfect voice for this story. Review this when rewriting or adding scenes.
H - Hint. This implies more. Something bubbled up that is valuable, specific, and revelatory. It needs to be explored imaginatively.
Y - Yikes, this is bad writing.
F - Flat. It's easy here to get distracted and leave the story.
R - Research is needed because this may be wrong or incomplete in important ways.

Occasionally, I need to add details, so I may listen to a scene more than once, but usually once is enough. Note: I started with ! ? M. The others were added later, and originally those marks were put in during second or third readings/listenings.

I've done fast reads and text-to-speech, and I find the latter more effective for me. It keeps me from getting distracted, and impulsively correcting spelling and grammar. It makes me experience the manuscript as a whole rather than slip into several levels of editing right away.

Do whatever works for you, but strive to get a sense of the story without getting drawn into a massive editing session. Work to identify what you like and what is working as much as what the problems are. Make an effort to stay in love with your story, warts and all. Eventually, you want everyone to love what this becomes, and you want a positive attitude to show through as often as possible.

Remind yourself that there is plenty of work to do, but it is worth it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 1 - The problems

The spontaneity, daring, and freedom of writing by the seat of my pants appeals to me. I'm happy enough working with an outline for fiction (and it's my preference for nonfiction) but I have more fun letting a story pour out of my fingers moment by moment. I like the surprises. I like the way the words slip into poetry. I like being able to tell my internal editor to go to hell.

Sometimes pantsing is a little like going on a drunken spree. And, once I write "the end" for the first draft, there can be a morning after of regrets, confusion, and headaches. The morning after for me is about six weeks afterward for whatever I'm writing is that is possible. That distance is invaluable in providing a fresh perspective on the work.

But the day of revision number one must come at last. And while the plotting me finds a coherent story with proper beats and mostly free of inconsistencies, the pantser me will find... well, usually it's a mess. With my internal editor back from the place of fire and brimstone and looking for revenge, I read through and find blind alleys, characters whose motives drift, abandonment of logic, whole chapters that feel like a drive through a flat landscape, and scenes that read like outline.

That's the bad news. The good news is that I can sense most of a story is buried in these pages. I find paragraphs, pages, and sometimes chapters that charm me. And the voice seems fresh when I can stop cringing. With courage and persistence, the problems are solvable. A good novel or script is just waiting for me to get to work.

The task for me, as the editor of a pantser, is not the same as what I face when revising one of my plotted works. Roughly, these are the five things I need to deal with:
  • Story logic - Scenes are missing. Unneeded scenes are present. The order of scenes is wrong. The scenes do not connect properly.
  • Pacing - The story tension plateaus and dips at times.
  • Blind alleys - Promises are not kept. Good sequences fail to resolve or tie back to the rest.
  • Inconsistent voice and tone - Some sections feel like they were written by different people or for a different book.
  • Weak endings - The story is not resolved in a way that matches the excitement, daring, and creativity of the rest. It doesn't pay off the theme, and lacks surprises and insights.
There are other problems evident in the reading as well. Many are what a plotted work suffers from -- misspellings, weak verbs, a bad balance of narration/action/dialogue. Some come from lack of attention to calendars, maps, floor plans, and character descriptions. But the biggest problems are the ones listed above.

Not everyone will have all these problems. Natural storytelling tendencies and experience as a pantser mitigate problems in the first draft. So does the general attitude toward feeling free to take liberties.

To a pansters, these problems are worth the price, but they can lead to discouragement and panic when revision time comes around.

Be calm. Be confident. Savor the good parts, even those that may not end up in the final manuscript. You have wonders and delights that would not have shown up if you'd been a plotter. And everything can be fixed. As Damon Knight said, "This is not a watercolor."

In future posts, I'll have some suggestions on how to take on each of these problem from a perspective of a pantser. Making your manuscript longer or shorter. Reentering the story world. Making it fun again. Sparing the voice. 

If you're a pantser facing revision, I'm here to help. In the meantime, enjoy your adventure and congratulate yourself on making bold choices as an artist. Your work has what it needs to stand out. To move people. Celebrate that. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Story Clinic 3 - Becoming a stand out

I once read a fantasy about writers in heaven. The charm of the story came mainly from the breeds chosen for each author. The big dog everyone respected and could never match was William Shakespeare. (I think he was a St. Bernard.)

As editors, agents, and (eventually) readers check out your manuscript, they'll have many of these dogs in mind. And though you'll never compete against Shakespeare in the slush pile, there will be other writers whose work is distinctive. These will be chosen for publication and will find their audiences eventually. Their writers will find a place in the community of writers. Because whether they're boxers or pekinese or mutts like no other, their stories stand out.

Be unique.

You already are one of a kind. Your writing needs to be, too. This means you need to share more of yourself than is comfortable. You need to write things that make you squirm. You need to accept that some people will hate what you write and even be offended by it. Take heart and go about the business of startling yourself. Courage is the most important attribute of heroes. And of writers.

Voice always jumps out at readers. It's what gets the pulses of editors and agents going. This means not sounding like you "should." Don't ape other authors (except as exercises). Put the rules aside if they get in the way of you sounding like you. Beware of rewriting the voice away. Imagine telling the story to an individual instead of an audience. Be consistent in tone and idiom. Read your work aloud. If a friend tells you it felt like you were there telling the story, you've got it.

Engagement and pacing catch readers and keep them. Make your hooks as sharp as possible. Construct cliffhangers that force readers to turn pages. The pace does not need to be breathless, but the story needs to move forward on every page. And every paragraph needs to have a payoff.

Humor charms people. If you have it, use it. Most people can't make stories funny. It's tricky, but worth the try. I took a course with Danny Simon and two pieces of advice stuck with me. First, control the range of humor. Getting too broad late into a piece will kill it. Second, the best humor comes from a consistently skewed perspective, not jokes. The worst sin here is having a character do or say something that doesn't fit who they are just because it's funny.

Keep your promises.

Go back to premise for your story, which by now should have been pushed and prodded to the point of outrageousness, then distilled into pure nitroglycerin. Make a list of things that premise implies. Make it a long list of twenty or so items. Did you leave any out?

Look at the choices you've made for all the major beats of your story. Are they bold? Can you imagine more daring choices?

Articulate your theme. Can you use it to cut away scenes? Does it imply developments that you haven't explored yet?

List the questions your character has had to answer. Are they interesting. Do they fully illustrate the theme? Do they escalate in importance?

Identify surprises in your story. (Look especially for cases where you surprised yourself.) Are there enough of them? (I try for one major surprise every fifty pages and about three turns in each scene.) Are they all justified and fair with proper setups, or do they come from out of nowhere? Do all your surprises make it tougher for your protagonist and easier for your antagonist?

All of these are aimed at finding the hidden gold in your story. You want to get full value, and you never want readers to come up with better payoffs than you provided.

Good stories need to become great stories. The more it becomes your story, something no one else could have written, the less it will be weighed down by the familiar and the mundane. The more fully you engage your imagination and take the story as far as it can go, the more powerful it will be. Avoid what's comfortable. Never settle for good. 

Also in this series:

Story Clinic 0 - Are your ready to tell the tale? set up this series and provided suggestions on how to prepare to get the most out of it.

Story Clinic 1 - Where does it hurt? examined problems with knowing your story, starting (and ending) in the right place, or maintaining story logic.

Story Clinic 2 - Adjustments and tuneups was all about making your story more immediate and focused.
My first How To Write Fast book will be out later this year. As part of that, I'm looking for opportunities to present seminars, speak, and guest blog. I can be reached at howtowritefast@gmail.com
Want more? This course begins next month.

Lost in the Story

Dates: Jun 6- 27, 2016 Cost: $20
Course Description:
A workshop on reader immersion.
We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending. The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Story Clinic 2 - Adjustments and tune-ups

While there are plenty of bestsellers that don't have wonderful prose or original ideas, almost all tell compelling tales that hook readers and keep them turning pages all the way to "The End."

Fixing the prose of the first draft may be a chore, but most people who can finish the book have enough command of English (or the language of the story) to clean things up. Unfortunately, a clean complete manuscript is not enough. The story must be compelling. And, after you've completed the draft  (which may be wonderful, but is most likely a mess), work on the story becomes the main job.

Last time, I explored some big issue story problems. If you have problems with knowing your story, starting (and ending) in the right place, or maintaining story logic, you might want to look back at my previous post, Story Clinic 1 - Where does it hurt?

If you have any of Clinic 1 problems, you'll need to solve them before going further. If you don't have these big issues, let's look at what else might be dragging down your story.

1) Distance. Reading summaries in CliffsNotes is not the same as reading a story. All the pieces are there, but it's impossible to get the immersion experience.  All too often, I read novels that outline or tell me the story, but don't put me into the story. All the elements are there, but something is missing. What?

Sometimes, it's specificity. The details that bring out the story need to be evocative. Strolling beats walking. Opening a lock with a half diamond or a snake rake beats using a pick.

Point of view makes a difference. Third person omniscient served 19th century readers well enough and put every element of the story within the writer's control, but today we want to be the character, so third person limited is more common. If you write young adult fiction, the identification with protagonists in most stories is even closer with most novels now written in first person (and, more and more, in the present tense).

And pacing provides yet another way to pull people out of stories. Abrupt changes, narration that goes too long or too short, and rhythms that make it easy to stop reading all disrupt the reading experience. Most often, these problems come from a lack of confidence in the reader (they need to know this), from rough beginnings to a new session of drafting, and from insertions and deletions made in the revision process (or revisiting scenes and chapters during drafting). Beta readers can point these problems out. Many become evident simply by reading the work aloud.

2) White spaces. Many writers, deeply engaged in their own work, leave important parts out. One of the most common is the setting.

Sometimes, writers are in a rush, and chapters and scenes begin with disembodied voices. These snatches of dialogue seem to go in and out of vogue, and some people find they raise questions and add energy. Mostly, they confuse, but, if they are an aesthetic choice (or story necessity), it's important to remember to take the story out of a white space environment and into a specific place as soon as possible. White spaces also happen when action changes location. A new place needs a new (brief) description.

A close kin to the visuals-free environment is the sensory-deprived environment. Remembering smell, lighting, the size of the space, temperature, and textures can place a reader into the scene and add life.

One more problem is the loss of the sense of the scene when dialogue takes over. What the characters say, by itself, can be rich, but don't do this accidentally. Consider how they speak, what they look like, facial expressions, body language, and... interactions with the environment. Stage plays are loaded with scenes that turn on dialogue, but a good director will block out the scene and give the characters plenty of physical things to do. Ideally, this expresses character. Minimally, it makes things more interesting.

3) Loss of clarity. This is the biggest one. Never make readers read something twice. Include all that is needed, in the right order, so no one gets disoriented. Heinlein said the best writing course he ever got was one he took at the U.S. Naval Academy on giving orders. If the order could be misconstrued by anyone, you scored zero for that day.

As with distance, beta readers can tell you when they are confused, and you should always take that seriously. For a quick check, look for these problems:
  • sloppiness
  • ambiguity
  • complexity
  • assumptions
  • missing information
  • too many characters (or lack of distinction/tags that leads to  confusion of characters)
Make adjustments and tune-ups to deal with these three problems, and readers will be much more engaged in your story. It will come across more strongly in their imaginations. But will it stand out? Will it be all that it promises to be? I'll explore that in next week's post.