Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Creating a Revision Punch List for Your Story - Taking action on critiques

Though it can be harrowing, getting expert criticism (from development editors, agents, qualified peers, mentors, and industry people) on your work can be one of the most valuable steps in taking a good story and bringing it to a higher level. Since I want to get the most out of their time, I don’t hand off first drafts to experts. In most cases, what they get has been revised using every step of my process. Basically that means going from big picture to small.

I have a detailed task list (which is constantly updated). Here it is, greatly simplified:

    1.    Print and make general notes on the whole manuscript, listening to it via text-to-speech. In particular, pay attention to how the concept plays out, the pacing and consistency of tone, problems with clarity, and the soundness of the story logic. I also note where my attention lags.
    2.    Analyze to determine if any scenes can be removed or any might need to be added. Make those fixes.
    3.    Look at individual scenes. Check for conflict. See if any need more or fewer beats. Or description. Take a hard look for beginnings that hook and endings that pop.
    4.    Check characters for motivation and consistency. Make sure I worry about the protagonist more and more throughout. Mark all points of decision and make them harder if possible.
    5.    Read the whole thing aloud for language and sound.
    6.    Fix inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and word choice.

Note that this is a step-by-step process. Though I always have to do some cycling back I don’t bounce around or try to do more than one step in a single pass.

The punch list becomes something different. When I’ve completed handwritten notes during an oral critique, I type everything out as soon as I can, without prejudice. (It can be tempting to skip some criticism because “they didn’t get it.” That may be right, but maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. There’s even a chance that the criticism triggered my defense mechanisms. Eliminating certain criticism is a decision for later on. 

For a written critique, I highlight notes in the document and do what ever I need to do to ensure I’ve got them captured for later with no loss.

For each of these, my records must become full sentences, even if that’s not what’s in my initial notes. And I make sure I capture the nuances (bold and asterisks, for their emphases and mine, respectively).

Then I let things marinate. For a month, if I can. This gives me a measure of distance that helps me to get the most out of what the critics meant (vs. what I heard or interpreted).

When I return to the criticism, it’s now time to strike out or modify what I suspect isn’t right. It’s also time to consider whether there are any problems that doom the project. (Yes, that can happen, and it means abandoning the work.)

Concerns about clarity always are kept, even if I think I’ve provided a map with highlights, complete descriptions, and Orson Welles talking in their heads. Questions of plot logic are tested, using more than one tool. Critic “solutions” are almost always challenged, and I have a strong detector for instances where the story the critic sees is clear and valid, but not mine.

I also allow myself to make notes in the moment. Sometimes, this is ideas for fixes. Sometimes, it’s new ideas to make the story better. Sometimes, images, paragraphs, dialogue, story twists, and even whole scenes fall out of my brain and need to be captured immediately.

With every critique go-through, I pull out questions and areas for research.

Except in the case of research, it’s best to get this part done quickly. Get it roughly right. I try to complete the work of capturing the essence of each item in forty-eight hours or fewer.

Then I begin to formulate a draft punch list.

I don’t worry about creating sterling prose or the best possible solutions to story problems at this stage. Why? Because this work is done out of context. It’s likely to change in the face of the needs of the whole work.

Research is different because it helps to build my knowledge base and generate options. Unless I mess up and go down a rabbit hole or slip into creating a different story, research will have a natural end point. There are no natural end points for story solutions and perfectly written scenes.

The next job is to organize the punch list. You can do this according to your needs and preferences. If  an acquisitions editor or a producer waiting, this may force triage in terms of available time and the power of the person who provided notes. If something on the list is calling to be taken care of or acted upon first, I remove the distraction by taking on that task. (At this point, I often will get irritated by misspellings and grammatical errors—which tend to be limited since the submitted manuscript was proofed—so I clean them up.)

Everything else being equal, I combine items from all critics into one list and use the same big picture to small approach I follow when I’m rewriting before submission.

There are a few differences. For instance, inserting a new character or radically changing one has to be be done early, well before step 4 above. The big picture changes probably need to be inserted without polish, with the cleanup being left to step 6.

Since the action items came from other people, there are likely to be a few that don’t neatly fit into my revision model. That’s okay. I drop these in where they may make sense to me, knowing my choice might be less than optimal. Sometimes, this leads to valuable changes in my revision model.

Once the punch list is completed, going through it is efficient and straightforward. Step by step, the manuscript gets fixed, usually without my having to circle back. And the story tends to maintain its integrity, avoiding the revision problem of losing its distinctive voice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Five Ways to Make Your Story Better

I suspect most people know about serious problems with their stories, even though it may take a few questions or comments from critique partners to accept the verdict.

Do we also know what could make our stories better? Not serious problems, but those tasks that would have the biggest impact on improving the stories we feel pretty good about? I challenged myself to list five activities each for six of my stories and see what would come up. I liked this so much, I ended up writing down tasks for 8 of my fully drafted works and 3 that are unfinished. For each of these works, nothing feels seriously wrong, and I’m confident I’m on the right track, but listing tasks provided me with a powerful a combination of reminders, quick checks, and experiments.

Here are eleven notes that come up frequently or struck me as especially valuable:

    1.    Read the work aloud. Pretty simple and obvious, eh? In fact, in each case, I had read the stories aloud, but, for the ones that jumped out at me, it had been several revisions ago. I don’t know, but I suspect things have changed enough so the act of speaking the words will provide opportunities to find omissions and points of confusion and to smooth the language.
    2.    Lengthen five scenes. I tend to write very short, and my check on that is making sure each scene has three to five beats (turns, reveals, power shifts). Choosing five scenes in a completed work doesn’t seem onerous, and I’m betting (based on revisions on another work) this will make a couple of scenes better and lead to a few surprises.
    3.    Challenge the dialogue. I’m taking a course on fiction podcasts where the instructor said dialogue has no images to lean on, so it better be compelling from moment to moment. I’m also taking an acting course, and the instructor demonstrated maintaining attention by standing as I worked through a monologue and walking toward the door every time I bored him. I’ll see him and use that awful feeling as I work to set the bar higher for myself.
    4.    Check for strong conflict. The need to provide backstory and to set things up can be so acute that it’s easy to write a scene with weak or no conflict. It feels okay because so much is presented—and the AUTHOR’S problems are solved. Not good enough. Find the conflict. Make sure it provides a knock-out punch.
    5.    Leave them eager for more. Every scene needs to have a strong reason for being in the story. Finding that reason is already a challenge. Deciding what to include can be missed, and that can lead to a scene with complete resolution. That can work at the end of a story, but it might be a problem anywhere else. It invites readers to put the book down.
    6.    Question the point of view. Head hopping is one of the real sins of writing. If the point of view within a scene becomes inconsistent, readers can be confused and are almost certainly going to lose emotional connection. But the care taken for point of view can lead to a loss of opportunities to create more energy by changing point of view in different scenes. A good rule of thumb is determining who has the most to lose in a scene and at least trying to write the scene from that perspective. It might not always work.
           For instance, the expectation in most romances is the story will be told from the heroine’s point of view all the way through or alternate between the heroine and the hero. Violating that expectation can be problematic. Similarly, many mysteries depend upon holding to the detective’s point of view from start to finish so information is present is a fair way to solve the puzzle. In most scenes, the detective in not the one who has the most to lose in a scene. But many stories come alive when more attention is paid to which character should have the point of view.
    7.    Make it more visual. According to common knowledge, Nicola Tesla imagined machines in his head so completely, he often didn’t know whether they had ever been built. I will not claim that the visual in all the scenes reach that level in my head, but it’s all too easy for me to leave out descriptions my readers need to share the experiences I have when I read my stories. I make the stories better when I review what’s actually on the page for readers to see.
    8.    Make me worry. My characters often don’t get into enough trouble as they could. The challenges don’t always exact a price. The stakes of failure can be higher. In my heart of hearts, I am a bit too reluctant to torture them. Going through scenes and looking at what happens through the eyes of those who can’t stand them is a painful but valuable exercise.
    9.    Identify five highly emotional scenes. If I can’t do this in a novel or a screenplay, something’s wrong. In fact, if I can’t figure out what they are without looking at the manuscript, I’m probably in trouble. Most readers show up for emotion, not fine ideas and arguments. Even if the emotional scenes pop out without hesitation, I may not be okay. My next step is always to read each one, to see if they are all they can be. Sometimes, oddly enough, that means going back to a less emotional scene and reworking it. Like jokes, emotions benefit from powerful setups.
    10.    Check the pacing. This is likely to become evident when reading aloud, but it may be necessary to look to the story logic to make sure every scene is necessary. And that there is escalation along the way. Challenges need to get tougher. Stakes need to rise. It’s all too easy to have the energy plateau, often at exactly the wrong time. When that happens, it’s an invitation to put the book down.
    11.    Make the theme perfect. This is a big one. The whole story pivots on it, and this is often expressed fully in one critical scene. I have to know what that scene is. I have to articulate the theme in a way that is clear, concise, and resonant. A great theme is a snatch of poetry, once the story is written. It may not sound like it to someone who hasn’t experienced the whole work, but it should open up someone who has. And, once the scene and the theme statement are indisputable, the whole story needs to be reviewed with these in mind.

You can ignore all of these tasks and still have a good story. But these activities may point to ways to make that story better, maybe as good as it can be. None of my stories will benefit greatly from all of them. I'm confident the right five tasks will do the job, and my recommendation to you is that you explore this list, and choose the five (or three) that seem to be most valuable. It’s YOUR five ways that matter. Before getting to work, feel free to add ones that are not on this list. (I did.) Don’t worry if not everything raises the level of the story. If one does, you win.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 5: Interesting choices

One person runs toward a burning building while another gets as far away as possible. When the heroine says, “I love you,” the hero responds in kind. Or changes the subject. One boy gets knocked to the ground and stays put. Another stands up and goes after his attacker, no matter how big.

In stories, choices define the characters. And they don’t have to be diametrically opposed choices, like the ones above. Often the best choices are surprises. A man might step into the street to direct traffic away from the inferno. Han Solo might respond to “I love you” with “I know.” The boy on the ground might rise with a knife in his hand.

This series has been about dropping new scenes in when they are needed by the story. I’ve made suggestions on investigating possibilities by defining the purpose of the scene, examining the power dynamics of characters, assessing the challenges characters face, and, in conclusion with this post, exploring possible choices. You may not need all these steps to create a terrific scene that will elevate the quality of your story, so don’t feel obliged to go through all of them. But, if you’re not sure you’ve found the best answer, this process can take you where your gut alone can’t.

So how do you decide which choice is the most powerful? For me, when I get lucky, the muse tells me. I begin to visualize the whole scene, and it’s like taking dictation.

Unfortunately, that is not my typical experience. When I don’t get help, I need to rely on a process. Here’s my approach:

Capture, specify, combine, compare, assess, contextualize, write the first sentences, and choose.

Capture. Chances are, you already have ideas for scenes. List those that come to mind, even if they are awful and impossible. Don’t reject any of them yet. Feel free to begin with single words or sentence fragments. I try to get twenty distinct options down, but I never stop with fewer than ten. I work hard to include one that is a verbal showdown and one that is all action and would come across clearly in a silent movie.

Those captured phrases need to be put into full sentences now.  As an example of that, here’s a great summary of Jaws. Some scenes are done in one sentence. Some in a few. The point is to clearly state what happens in the scene. Focus on what’s essential.

Specify. Here’s something I got from George Gurthridge’s wonderful book, The Kids from Nowhere. If an idea is not original, it might become more original with what Gutheridge calls “funneling.” Taking the options you’ve listed, especially those that aren’t obviously original, and adding more details and specificity make reveal more imaginative approaches to them.

Combine. Can any of the options be put together to create something stronger? If so, now’s a good time to experiment with that.

Compare. If you still have twenty choices, that’s a lot to deal with. It might be wise to force rank them. I usually proceed with about five at this point, though I never force a tough decision. More is okay.

Assess. This is a serious part. What do you believe makes a good idea for a scene? I like originality (obviously). Surprise is usually a good clue. A scene that both increases jeopardy and reveals a secret can be powerful. Visual qualities or humor can sell me on a scene (depending on the story). One thing I always include is twists or turns. These are usually power shifts, and, if a scene cannot deliver three to five I care about, it’s hard for me to see it as viable. That’s not absolute, but it’s a good guideline.

My most critical assessment has to do with difficulty. Will this scene present my character with the toughest choice I can imagine? Will it torture my protagonist? And, will it be difficult for me, calling up truth, emotion, and the best I can do as a writer?

Contextualize. At this point, it’s good to still have three choices, even if one is beginning to look like the winner. Why? Because that really great scene might not fit into your story. In fact, it might destroy much of what you’ve been working toward. There are set pieces that are so memorable and have such emotional content, you can stick them in without regret. But do that intentionally. Choose them after putting them into the context of the scenes before and after (or the sequence or the act or the whole story).

Write the first sentence. Or paragraph. Or lines of dialogue (especially for a script). The purpose here is to bring together analysis, gut feelings, and language in something that might become part of your story. It’s like seeing if a phrase of music might contribute to a symphonic work, and it’s a wonderful test. Often, I get surprised and my least favorite choice comes alive by doing this. As an added benefit, this small bit of writing can help propel you into writing the whole scene. You are no longer facing a blank page.

Choose. At this point, you probably can see which option will do everything you hope for to enhance your story. If the answer still isn’t clear, you can write out your choices in full, from what seems to be the most likely to one that seems like a long shot. For me, my first choice usually provides a happy solution. In my worst cases, I’ve written three scenes to get what I needed.

This series is about solving a problem that comes up in revision. I would not use it during drafting because that’s the part of writing l like best. I’m not interested in taking the fun out of my efforts. But I have done full, detailed outlines for several of my works that seemed to need that approach, and it may be that hardcore plotters will be able to adapt this approach to their drafting needs. If so, I’ve got no problem with that.