Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Revise for Readers 2 - Tough but vital fixes

Last time, I offered suggestions on possible story fixes based on audience needs and expectations. My aim was to provide a toolbox for easy repairs to stories that were, essentially, in good working order. "Almost there" stories may be the result of careful preparation or blind luck. I've had it turn out both ways.

In most cases, upon the completion of the first draft, there are likely to be bigger problems that can't be fixed quickly. Note: This is not the result of the story being bad. Some of the absolute best stories emerge from the first draft process as shambling monsters. So, love your baby, however it turns out – and get to work.

Returning to a reader-centered guide…

Diversion. That great premise you started with? You may have recognized a concept that had something more promising within it than came out in the telling. A fresh look might show that the full value of the concept didn't come through because of laziness (settling for clich├ęs) or the terrifying nature of the full expression of your connection with the concept.

In the former case, it's a matter of raising the bar for yourself and finding fresher ideas and challenges for your characters. In the latter case, it may mean a full (but amazing and delightful) page one rewrite. What can push you into taking on such an enormous task? Knowing it's worth it. Having the couraged to take the risk. And sharing the astonishment of a high-wire act with your audience.

Knowledge/perspective/humor. Stale information is usually the results of someone thinking they know the answers (because they've seen that world in news reports and movies) or chasing a topic that has people excited but doesn't have the writer engaged and committed.

On a fundamental level, that means digging in and doing enough research to unearth surprising facts. (I even do this for worlds that are familiar to me.) Beyond interviews, library research, visiting locales, and such, knowledge enters a new space when received wisdom falls away and new pictures emerge. If you can, for instance, imagine a compelling alternate history without changing any established facts, that's intrinsically valuable.

I have, on occasion, totally transformed stories by changing the point-of-view character. Often, this involves a deeper understanding of the risks each character faces. But it also can be a simple recognition that one of the characters has a truly distinct perspective on life and on the events that transpire in the tale.

On humor, I had the good fortune of taking a course with Danny Simon, who worked on a lot of television programs and with golden age luminaries. One point advice he had was to get rid of the "joke jokes." These were the funny bits that did not fit the characters or the story.

The best humor — which comes out of who the characters are – is undercut by these jokes. Humor is tied to insights, quirky perspectives, and obsessions (especially blind obsessions). It's also frequently daring and antisocial. So, looking toward truth, authentic characters, and a recognition of human frailty will naturally improve the humor in your writing – provided you're funny.

Lessons/rehearsal for life. I think what gums up this part more than anything is not having anything to say. My assumption is that any story worth telling touches the writer in some way. It includes specifics that add dimensions to themes about life. It illustrates, often through candid disclosures, the struggle for wisdom. It respects the structure and tone of the myths that live in our bones. And it strips away those elements, no matter how entertaining, that obscure meaningful models for making difficult choices.

Understanding what you have to say often only emerges with a full draft and a discovery of the theme. And it's a big deal for revisions because, minimally, cutting, reordering of scenes and reconceiving situations in the story will be necessary. Just going through bit by bit looking for alignment is a major task -- but the payoff is a story that works on a higher level. 

Promises. One thing I try to do is keep genre commitments to readers in unexpected ways. Nothing is staler than a first kiss you seeing 20 times before. Sex scenes? Most writers hate committing them to paper and mocking the failed attempts of well-considered authors has become an annual sport.

Those scenes that the genre promises require special attention because it's so easy to fall back on the familiar or to slip when trying something new. Of course, the answer is to look at each one closely, respond honestly to what is written, and rework the whole thing (including scenes that lead in or follow) when necessary. How do you know you need to do this? If you didn't tell the truth. If you didn't find what makes you connect with the scene. If you fail to find something that's valid and that you never saw in a genre scene before.

It's demanding, but it should be. You have promises to keep.

What all this comes down to is having a level of openness to major revisions – to the attention they require, the exploration they demand, the daring and management of fear with which they must be approached, and the work. Sometimes, when your head is full of other stories to tell, that last – the work, the page one rewrite – can overwhelm you. Think of the time. Think of the possibility of putting in all those hours and still failing. Then forget about all that.

I probably can't prove this, but my strong suspicion is that most great works challenged writers to go into places that went beyond uncomfortable to the limits of intolerable. I certainly have found that with some of the things I written about which I'm proudest this was the case. So keep this in mind:

If you pull off facing the toughest challenges that come up in writing, you have a good chance of creating the best work you can do. If you do not succeed and end up creating something that doesn't quite come together, you will certainly become a stronger, more insightful, more interesting, and more competent writer than you ever imagined you could.

I see that as a win-win, and I think it's a good argument for taking on the biggest challenges.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Revise for Readers 1 - Quick fixes for your story

I've long advocated Kurt Vonnegut's technique of writing a first draft for a specific reader. This immediately provides focus, pacing, and diction for your piece. Do this, and you are automatically well-positioned for revision.

Now, once you begin rewriting, it's good to think beyond telling the story to just one person. Now is the time to remember why people read stories (and watch movies). So, without pretending that I'm presenting an exhaustive list, I'll review some of the reasons people hunger for stories and suggests some quick fixes that might elevate your work. (Next week, I'll dig into repairs that take more time and effort.)

First, people don't come to your stories with the idea of engaging in labor. Yes, someone reading mystery will be trying to work out whodunit along the way, and an SF reader may put an effort into imagining your strange new world. But in general, you are responsible for doing the work. This means that if you don't make things clear, readers will stop reading. Beta readers with red pens are your best allies in making sure that whatever you wrote comes through. Naturally, you also have an obligation to choose appropriate vocabulary and pay attention to the rules of grammar and spelling.

Diversion is probably the main reason why people sit down with the novel. They are looking for a break, a bit of fun, and some entertainment. Much of this depends upon your initial concepts and character development (not easy to fix). Let me suggest three fixes to a complete draft that might take a story that is intrinsically interesting and make it better.
  1. Include hooks and cliffhangers. Anything that will raise questions, engage, and keep readers interested will make your story more compelling and entertaining.
  2. Look closely at where and how you revealed important information. Aristotle talks about the value of astonishment in storytelling. To me, this means riddling the work with (appropriate and fair) surprises. Withhold choice bits of information as long as possible without cheating. And frame these in ways that set them off.
  3. Get rid of the boring parts (as Elmore Leonard advised). One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to highlight the sections of your manuscript that are back story and narration. Especially at the beginning of a story, these can drag and may be important only to the writer. Getting them into the draft is good and necessary work. Leaving them there can be tedious for your reader.
The use of adverbs, adjectives, and "junk" words like "that," can also rob your story of energy and make it drag.

Knowledge/perspective/humor – Lots of people come to stories to learn and to see their worlds differently. Research can be a good route to providing intriguing details that people will want to remember (as long as you don't overdo it). Both the perspectives of people who are different from the readers and your perspectives, if you see the world in a skewed way as most humorists do, can be the reason why the work attracts readers in the first place. Add something to the sound of the language (which may be more than a quick fix) and you have most of the components of voice. Why do editors and agents always talk about how important voices to them? Because it's important to readers.

Lessons/rehearsal for life — In a first draft, it's quite likely that there will be elements to a story that provides a good model for dealing with situations we all face, but these may occur in order that is random. It may also be that there are events that distract from the model, diminishing its value. Here, provided you have a good handle on the lessons embedded in your work and you have the courage to reshape it, the solution is to take out the parts that, although interesting, are not essential. Then, with the remainder, reorder so the stakes escalate for the protagonist.

Promises – The most obvious thing to check for here is making sure all the expected genre events are included. (A showdown in a Western, for instance. Or a first kiss and a romance.) This means you have to know your genre well, understand how to present these incidents in a fresh way, and take the time to inspect your work to be sure you didn't leave them out or otherwise shortchange the reader.

I could add to this list. Sometimes it doesn't take much to create more empathy for characters or take something unexpected out of the premise or refine the language so it's more lyrical. But the point is that it is worthwhile to keep in mind reader expectations and check to see that they are fulfilled before you finish revising your manuscript.

Now, sometimes more than a quick fix is needed. And that's what I'll cover in my next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It's All About the Stories - Five years of boosting productivity

I've met so many people with talent. With stories to tell. With insights and perspectives that need to be shared. Caught in productivity traps.

That has been the driving force for this blog. Now, five years later, I’ve had the chance to publish over 300 posts on the techniques and practices that can set imaginations free, open doors, and make writing fun. I’ve been delighted to see writers break bad habits and get stalled manuscripts moving. For me, this has created opportunities to teach and speak, but the real joy is seeing people live the lives they have dreamed of (or, at least, get a little closer).

So, after 140,000 page views (about 75 a day on average), I’m hoping some of you feel this is a milestone worth celebrating. And what better way to observe this occasion than by pointing you to the most popular posts and series of these five years? So, here they are…

Most Popular Posts

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks

Most Popular Series (other than those that include one of the "Most Popular Posts")

Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

Stories Off the Leash (7 posts, beginning with this one)

Write Who You Are (6 posts, beginning with this one)

Fast Reads = Better Stories (5 posts, beginning with this one)

A Pantser's Guide to Revision (5 posts, beginning with this one)

Now, those are just my writings. I have had the help of many a writer in the form of interviews and guest posts. In fact, the most popular post of any kind by far is one by Scrivener maven Gwen Hernandez. It has been viewed over 8,000 times, more than the next two posts combined.

What’s next? A lot more posts. I haven’t come close to running out of material (probably because I’m writing all the time and facing the same challenges you are). I’ll continue to teach the old courses and to develop new ones.

I am well along in writing How to Write Fast: Productive story drafting. It should be available in September. I’ve outlined two follow-up books on revision and leveraging your story premise. To support my move into publishing, I’ll make a newsletter available. This will have announcements of my ventures, but the heart of it will be the kind of exercises, templates, and checklists that have been valuable to my students. I’ll also include some giveaways (Want me to be your productivity nag for a month?) and the opportunity for some subscribers to become beta readers for the books. I haven't started building a mailing list yet, but, if you're interested in the newsletter, send me a note at howtowritefast@gmail.com Put newsletter in the subject line.

Finally, thanks to all my readers, followers, commenters, retweeters, sharers, and contributors for all the joy this blog has brought me over the years.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut

Last time, I introduced the idea of identifying and exploring your story topic as a way to deepen your connection with your work, find interesting development options, and make the experience more coherent for readers and audiences.

After having done this in a shoot from the hip way, I've reworked my process to interrogate the work and create a clear statement I can use as a guide. I ask questions, and then I write a brief essay (usually about 100 words) about the story's topic.

I've found this so useful that it has become a standard practice for me (most often after a draft is complete, but it could be done as part of development beforehand). To illustrate it, I'll work through the questions with a well-known (and wonderful) story, that of the film Casablanca. If you don't know the movie, watch it right away. It is one of the classics for good reasons.

What does the story explore? Though I could (and have) come up with other topics, the main one here seems to be connection and responsibility.

What does the character explore? Initially, Rick, the protagonist has no connections and is not interested in developing them.

“What is your nationality?” “…I’m a drunkard.”
“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
"I stick my neck out for nobody." 

But Rick has loved before, and the possibility of love causes him to look at that connection, friendships, empathy for those in trouble, his hunger for justice, and, ultimately, the pivotal issue of his time.

"I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Rick also experiences the benefits of connection. Again, the change is dramatic, from

“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”


“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

Who is the audience? Upon it's release, I think most people saw Casablance as a propaganda piece (Variety called it, "splendid anti-Axis propaganda") aimed rousing an American audience to fight the Nazis. One pointed remark:

“I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America…”

But the story reaches far beyond its own time into ours. The audience is not just reluctant Americans looking for an adventure story. It is one of the great works of art, inspiring generations, worldwide. 

At this point in my analysis, I take a fresh look at the theme. To me topics are subsidiary to themes, so this provides a check. My own take on Casablanca's theme is that sacrifice humanizes us (which seems to fit my stated topic).

What is the story about? If the pain and loss we suffer has meaning to us, it opens us to experiencing the miracle of living.

Why does it matter?  Viktor Frankl introduced the idea of Logotherapy, with the premise humans "are motivated by a will to meaning, an inner pull to find a meaning in life." With meaning, "people will be willing to sacrifice and people will find strengths they did not know they had when they think there is something more important than their comfort." According the the Victor Frankl Institute, "we can help those who are suffering by turning their attention away from themselves and on to something they care for enough to want to do it for its own sake, not for any personal gain."

How does this relate to me? My life has not been free from discomforts and suffering. I also am deeply empathetic when faced with the suffering of others. Making sense of suffering, finding ways to come to grips with suffering, to find and express, and to create and maintain routes to positive values leads to more happiness, acceptance, and social connection in my life.

What are my touch points? I'm not going to get overly personal here, but I do not set limits as I work through the questions and the essays for my own works. In private notes for this work, I would undoubtedly reflect on particular losses, injustices, frustrations, and grieving in my own experience and the experiences of those I know well.

Evidence for the topic (connection and responsibility).
Note: This is not about proving this topic is a good choice for Casablanca. It is about identifying instances that explore the stated topic. For a work that is not mine, the list may be set, but I always try to go further with any story I've written, even if the draft is "complete." Without being comprehensive, in Casablanca:

1 Rick sacrifices love for a higher cause.
2 Rick rescues a woman from Louie's clutches by rigging the roulette wheel.
3 Rick risks the wrath of the Nazis (via the Vichy government) by allowing the Marseilles to be sung.


Emotional element.
I like to call this out specifically. People go to fictional books and movies for the emotional experience. Finding that within the topic and stating it gives it prominence.

Casablanca is rich in emotion. Most obviously, with the love story, which includes deceit, betrayal, reconciliation, passion, and caring. But connection also shows up in terms of righting injustices that easily might be ignored, small kindnesses, friendship, loyalty, respect, honor, and more.

What the ending needs (to accomplish). The joy of Casablanca is Rick, who had become a loner, connecting with others, from the individual level to people in community (at an historic level). I love the way this is expressed not just with sacrificing love for the higher cause of defeating the Nazi, but with something more immediate:

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

You may want to shuffle the questions around and even revisit your answers as your understanding of your story deepens. Your next step is to write the essay. I always write as if I am sharing my insights with a specific person I think would be interested. I'm not trying to convince them my topic is the only key or even the best choice for illuminating and exploring the work. The only qualification is that it resonates with me personally and I have the urge to share it.

This, to me, seems reasonable. I want whatever story I'm writing to reach me on a emotional level and to be something I have a passion to share with at least one other person. Often, when I write, the essence is known, if not articulated, in the first draft. But the essay challenges my understanding and ensures that it is clear enough to communicate well, without my missing major elements.

In practice, this enhances my enjoyment of the work, especially as I enter the revision process. I hope you find it useful as well.