Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First Draft Questions - Insights as a story takes its first breaths

If I can, I wait a month to six weeks before reviewing a completed first draft. As tempting as it is to get right back to work and fix things up, I benefit from the distance I get from the story. It makes me notice things I’d never notice without fresh eyes.

So, the calendar is marked, my schedule is arranged, and I move on to a short story are start a longer work while the completed manuscript ages. Once I hit the date on the calendar for review, I print the whole thing out and let the computer (via text-to-speech) read it to me. I may pause every fifteen to twenty pages or I may let it go through from beginning to end, but I never back up. My purpose it to make quick notes on the manuscript of where I get distracted or confused. I also may mark down an idea for a scene that seems to belong or add a question mark in bold red pen next to a scene that does not seem essential. I’m looking at the story, not the spelling or prose.

In the past, I’ve marched through a multi-step rewriting process that moves from big problems (missing beats) to the smallest (spelling and grammar). Because I was doing an exercise while my current manuscript was cooling, I needed to generate a series of questions. These helped me to respond to some feedback, and made a big difference in developing a new story.

Then because of an accident of timing, I went back immediately to the completed draft of my Work-in-Progress… with those questions still in my head. Once the text-to-speech read through was done, I took on those questions before my usual next steps. I like what happened, so I thought I’d share those questions here. They may be of use to you somewhere in your process, perhaps soon after you return to a first draft.

How can I simplify this story? Here I focused especially on parts where my attention strayed. Often, I’ve noticed, the plot can become a Rube Goldberg device with cheap fixes that complicate the concept unnecessarily. Wherever the list of “what readers need to know” becomes too long, there is apt to be a problem. After reading a piece on how Paddy Chayefsky would cut down characters to the fewest required to tell the story, I decided that was a good step to include in simplification.

Is the premise (often evident in the logline) clearly featured? Can I point to a scene where it takes precedence? There are so many tasks the protagonist must accomplish, the main task can get lost. Or it can be overwhelmed by tasks for subplots. There should be an irreversible decision by the protagonist that stands out and fully engages the reader in the main story. If not, that’s important to fix.

What are the protagonist’s tasks? Do they get more difficult and more consequential as the story proceeds? The protagonist must accomplish things to succeed, and, in a draft, these might not build properly. Any leveling off risks losing the reader’s attention. Explicitly listing and ranking the tasks can help avoid this problem. (Thanks to writing guru Max Adams for directing my attention to  Tony Rossio’s excellent article on The Task.)

What are the obstacles? This actually needs a close look in relation to the task, since the degree of difficulty is a factor. One thing this always forces me to take a closer look at is the goals, motivations, and resources of any adversaries. The more clever and powerful the opposition is, the better the story. And it’s all too easy to create one-note villains. Know the plans and options of the adversaries.

Does the protagonist prepare and take reasonable precautions? What are these? Are they taken at the right time in the story? Getting the balance right between a protagonist with flaws and one who is too stupid too live is harder than it looks.

What goes wrong? As I look back in my stories, there isn’t enough failure. My protagonists tend to succeed too often. Even when the achievements come after struggles and sacrifices, that can be boring… which leads to something I value more and more…

What are the secrets and revelations? What the protagonist doesn’t know can create powerful turns in a story. Surprises and unintended consequences can fiercely (and fairly) challenge the hero/heroine and make him/her change in more dramatic ways.

Is the protagonist betrayed? If not, why not? There are few things more heartbreaking than betrayal. A protagonist who can rise above faithless acts that make trust in other seem foolish is one readers are likely to remember and love.

How does the protagonist need to change? I always think I know the answer to this before I begin writing. I rarely have a clear understanding. Asking the question after a first draft can be revelatory.

Why am I writing this story? Why do I NEED to write this story? I routinely write a note to myself early on (about 30 pages in, usually) that includes reasons for writing the story. These are intended to argue my future self into finishing when the urge to quit at about 3/4 of the way comes (as it always does). But there is a real value to asking these questions before major revision begins — both in terms of focus and in terms of personal commitment.

None of these questions were new to me. In one way or another, I’ve used them to analyze every novel or screenplay I’ve written. But I’m not sure they always have come at that right time, and I found real value in repeating them at this stage, right after fully reviewing the first draft. And, though I may tweak the order, this is not a bad to run through as listed. To me, it feels like the answers build and create a perspective on the work that deepens my understanding and appreciation of what I have, and what I COULD have if I stick with it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Digging for Story Gold - Making research pay off

I like to be taken into other worlds. Hammett’s Continental Op stories present the attitudes, people, and criminal behaviors he experienced working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Dune brings together the interplay of culture and a carefully worked-out ecosystem in a vibrant way. Among Moby Dick’s many virtues is the detailed picture it provides of the whaling world.

Experience and research make these settings (along with the characters who live in them) compelling. Sometimes, the facts are shoved in your face by circumstances, like needing a job. Sometimes, it’s all serendipity — an article your run across, the chance meeting with a talkative stranger, witnessing a dramatic moment in someone else’s life.

Most often, writers create their own luck by researching topics related to the stories they’re working on. This can take many forms:

Fun facts. The right, largely unknown fact presented clearly at the right time in a story can propel a story forward and delight readers. Bits of the Koran appearing in  Renaissance paintings. Koalas thriving on normally poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Madame Curie’s notebooks, still too radioactive to handle.

Getting it right. One key reason to do research is to avoid embarrassing yourself. When I was in grade school, I wrote a story where, instead of the last out in an inning, the clock ran out in a baseball game. Oops. When I wrote a story taking place in Singapore (this, before the Web) I collected maps, pictures and travel guides so the sense of place would come through. (I have since visited Singapore, and the scenes still feel accurate to me.) So getting it right is essential for authenticity.

Immersion. I took that research a step further and had a friend send me the local newspapers. This helped me get a feel for the culture, especially the perspectives of inhabitants. That sort of virtual tourism is easier to do nowadays. I often will read highly specific articles, flash through pictures, and watch videos to get the right feel for something in a story. (I’ll even seek out newspaper content, including the ads. Reading personal columns in foreign newspapers is a treat.) The only caveat here is not to get sucked in. I usually set a timer when I do this kind of research.

Not so fun facts. Obviously, it’s a mistake to show off by including everything learned in research. Most people get past what I call “book reporting” early in their writing careers, but there is one common slip, even among professionals. It’s easy to get sucked in by stuff that’s geeky but irrelevant. I’ve read pages (often fascinating) that took me through details of jewelry making or harvesting in the Middle Ages or the important use of car horns in New Delhi traffic. It’s great to dig into obscure areas and it’s fine write about such things in early drafts. But, ultimately, it’s best if such deep dives are used  in service of the story. It may hurt to cut these, but, when the narrative thread is interrupted, you risk losing your readers.

Premise. Sometimes, whole books can be built upon research. I explored the life of a female scientists erased from history and used that as a basis for a novel. H.G. Wells used single concepts — what if you could build a time machine? What if a person became invisible? Exploring fresh ideas can be entertaining, especially if people are pushed to change. (Ray Bradbury said the best science fiction movie ever made was Singin’ in the Rain. The premise? Sound added to movies, and how that changes everyone working in the business. That had already happened, of course, but the treatment exploited the best SF methods.)

Much of what writers do is deliberate research, with an emphasis on fact-finding. I do this, of course, but I also will give it a turn when I already have story characters in mind. I consciously try to see my findings through the eyes of specific characters. I look for emotional responses and what the ideas and concepts uncovered mean to them. (This may be a holdover from research I’ve done on speeches, w where everything explored is in terms of the individual speakers and the audiences that will be addressed.) I think that looking a research through these different perspectives makes it fresher and raises out-of-the-box questions. If yours is the only perspective in research, that can become very limiting.

And I’ll put in a word for curiosity-driven research, too. It has two obvious advantages. First, it will take you to unexpected places (and surprises are pure gold for storytelling). Second, your curiosity always connects you with things that already interest you. With luck, those interests will grow into passions you can share with readers. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Critiquing Without Bloodshed

People look for feedback, but most want compliments. Loved the characters! So imaginative. The twists and the turns kept me reading!

Uh huh. I actually do believe that positive responses are essential. There have been too many times when I’ve seen people kill the best parts of their stories because no one had TOLD them what the best parts were. Positive feedback is valuable, as long as it’s not distracting.

Equally valuable is thoughtful analysis and, yes, pointers to what doesn’t work or might be better. I recommend asking critics to tell you if they got hooked by the beginning, tell you if attention drifted at any point, tell you if anything was unclear or had to be read twice, and tell you if the ending is satisfying (which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, but it could). And, for a given genre, are the expected elements (e.g., meet cute in romances) all there.

It is a great practice when you ask for criticism if you note any specific questions you have beyond the above. You can even ask for advice to help solve a story problem (rarely, you might get a good suggestion).

When you get a crit, always say thank you with as much sincerity you can muster. Someone just read your work thoughtfully (in most cases). They deserve that. And you may need to come to them again. So thank them even if everything they said was useless and/or mean. Even if it’s stupid.

As an exercise, I chose to write thank you notes to dozens of contest judges. I had to write not just “thanks,” but something substantive about the value I received. This forced me to let many of the critiques sit until I cooled off. And I then had to look for value in each one — even the stupid ones. What happened was I discovered more value than I had imagined. Not every crit deserved this, but more did than I guessed. By being appreciative, I gave myself an important gift.

Let’s turn this around because if you get feedback, you probably need to give it. Here are the steps I use.

    1.    Read thoughtfully. Take the time and respect the material. Take care if you are NOT the intended audience.
    2.    Don’t critique when you are angry or feeling ungenerous. No one wrote the work and presented it to you as a cruel joke. Most people are giving you the best they can, and they are trusting you. Even when they may be wading into deep water.
    3.    Critique with their best interests in mind. Your job is to provide the most valuable feedback you can.
    4.    Find something positive to say almost immediately, if possible. You will need to include something that appreciates the work, and the earlier you identify that element, the easier it will be to frame the review in a generous manner.
    5.    Answer their questions, carefully. If they have asked for specific feedback, provide it in a way it can be heard and acted upon. You can be honest AND tactful.
    6.    Limit what you say. I rarely make more than three important points. Few people can absorb every criticism that comes to mind. Be selective. Nits are okay, but, unless you are proofing the work, don’t cite every instance where dependent clauses lack commas or lie/lay is misused.
    7.    Be sure about your “facts.” When you correct, make sure you’re right. Even if you know you are.
    8.    Your experiences aren’t universal. If a character reacts in a way you wouldn’t (or didn’t in real life), it might still be valid.
    9.    Be careful about using examples. They can become overwhelming. Try to restrict them to what will clarify.
    10.    Note where you lose attention or get confused. These observations are golden for writers.
    11.    Let it be their story. It’s great news that what you read has you so excited you could take the ideas and run with them. But respect the writer’s right to tell the story he or she intends to tell.

The great thing about being critiqued is it’s mostly about you. You, and only you, have the power to decide a criticism is valid or should be rejected.

The great thing about critiquing is you don’t have to make the changes. You DO have to protect your relationship with the writer by acting respectfully and providing your feedback in a caring way. You never know how fragile their ego is. Don’t find out the hard way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finish with Enthusiasm

Hello, all
Since this article just went up a few days ago (associated with my Savvy Authors class), I'll just point you toward it for this week's post. I hope you enjoy it.


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Issue 5: Good (and Bad) Examples
Issue 4: At Home with Your Story
Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help