Tag Archives: story mechanics

Can writers be editors?

Or perhaps more importantly, can writers self-edit?

If you hang around in places where self-published authors talk, you know the hard-and-fast wisdom handed around right now is that a self-publishing writer MUST hire an editor.  You are strongly advised to hire a cover designer, and sometimes even an interior formatting designer, but the one thing everyone is in agreement on is the absolute necessity of an editor.  It is unquestionable–a writer cannot edit their own work.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and voice an unpopular opinion.  I think that writers can be their own editors.  Or at least, writers can learn to be their own editors.

I think the heart of the problem here is that so many writers never really learn about story mechanics.  Writing classes, from secondary school to college and on, all seem to focus on either the very low level–parts of speech, sentence construction–or the low level–this is foreshadowing, this is allegory.  Most classes do not teach, or even attempt to teach, basic story mechanics.  Concepts like setting stakes and escalating them, building tension, pace, how multiple story threads are worked together so that the reader doesn’t lose sight of any of them…these things are usually not discussed in writing classes.  Or maybe I just took the wrong classes!

Editing requires a different view of your work.  You have to stop looking at your story as this precious thing you created, take a step back, and really examine what is there on the page, not what was in your head as you wrote it.  Does the story on the page work?  If not, how can it be fixed?

These are questions most writers are ill-equipped to answer.  But that does not mean they can’t learn.  Personally, I think an excellent place to start is Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course.  She teaches various methods of taking that step back and evaluating the bones of your story, which is what developmental editing is all about.  If you’ve done the course, you’ll remember the index cards–to me, that is a great example of getting away from the story in your head to the story on your page, and showing you in simple terms what is not working.

I’ve heard the argument tossed around that writers can’t edit their own work because they are too close to it.  I don’t know.  I wonder, doesn’t that make the writer the *most* qualified person to edit that work, assuming they can achieve that necessary distance?  Nobody knows better than the writer what they were trying to do with a given piece.

I’m not talking so much about line editing and things like grammar checking, spelling, etc.  Those things are pretty objective.  But developmental editing is very subjective–no two editors are going to suggest the same changes to a manuscript.  An editor needs a firm understanding of what makes a story work, and how to fix it when it is broken.

These skills are not black voodoo magic.  They are not handed down from on high to a chosen few.  They are learned skills.

Most writers aren’t going to have these skills out of the box, as they say.  But I do believe that most writers can learn them.  What do you think?

Telegraphing to Your Reader -or- How to Shout Without Making a Sound

Have you read the kind of book where there are two men in the storyline; one who was a bit shady or aggressive or otherwise off-putting, and one who seemed totally awesomely perfect?

And at the end the totally awesomely perfect fellow turned out to be the twisted psychopath we were looking for all along?

I have to admit I sort of hated that.  I never really liked getting attached to a really cool character, only to find out that they were never really cool to begin with.

So I was actually inclined to be pleased when one of my readers commented that she knew from very early on who the twisted psychopath was in my novel Concerto.  It was done that way deliberately.  Today I’m going to talk a little bit about how.

It’s also going to be a bit spoiler-ish, so if you’re thinking about reading Concerto and don’t want any hint of what’s going to happen before you read it, you probably don’t want to continue.

All set?  Okay.  Here we go.

There are two main male characters in Concerto.  One is Alexis Brooks, and one is Dwight Richards.  Our protagonist does not know a whole lot about either of these characters when they are first introduced.  But I wanted the reader to be able to get a feel for them right away, and what type of role they might play going forward.  Then through the first half of the story, I’m going to test that instinct, because neither of them immediately seem to conform to the impression the reader generated.  The trick, though, is to get the reader to generate the proper impressions up front.

How do you do that?  There are lots of ways.  Let’s look at the ones I used.  First, let’s look at the very first appearance of Alexis Brooks.  Our protagonist is in the concert hall’s Green Room–presumably alone, until she hears voices approaching down a nearby hall.

Nobody was likely to be in the Green Room restrooms at six-thirty in the morning. It had to be the conductor then–Darren Johnson must have been having a meeting.

“I’m sorry, Darren, I cannot discuss this any further.”

Well, now I knew who Darren was meeting so early. That particular voice always made my knees a little weak. Alexis Brooks, international superstar, accused murderer, and concertmaster of the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

And an ongoing fangirl crush of mine since I was sixteen, but I was pretty sure this was not a good time to be thinking about that. The voices were getting louder now, and I was about to be involved in a confrontation between the conductor and the concertmaster of the symphony I worked for.

Not a pretty place to be. Pacing the house was not looking so bad right now.

“Alexis, stop.” I couldn’t tell if Darren was trying to plead or command. “You aren’t being reasonable, you have to see that.”

“I don’t care, I–” Alexis came around the corner and stopped short, staring at me. I could feel my face start burning. Terrific.

I tried to think of something to say to him, anything that wouldn’t make me look like a psycho eavesdropper. But I was drawing a total blank, and so I was still standing there like a red-faced idiot when Darren came barreling around the corner after Alexis and nearly ran right into him.   

Okay.  Now gather your impressions from that, but before we discuss it, let’s take a look at the first entrance of Dwight Richards.

A few minutes later, Dwight Richards came in. For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I always felt tense when he was around. Dwight was the symphony’s principal second violinist. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed and really a handsome man. He’d been asking me out pretty consistently since I came to town six months ago, but I just couldn’t feel comfortable enough around him to say yes. We were pretty good friends though. He dumped his violin case in a chair, stretched, looked around, and saw me.

Uh-oh. I knew that look, and I didn’t feel like having the same conversation, ending with the same no, this early this morning. I picked up my styrofoam coffee cup and headed for the sink farther down the counter, hoping to discourage him.

No such luck. “And how is Ms. Assistant-Concertmaster today?” demanded a cheerful, deep voice at my shoulder as I turned the water on.

“Oh, you know, could be better, could be worse,” I said evasively, rinsing the cup and lid. “I didn’t sleep well. But I’m still here, which is a plus. And you?”

He didn’t answer. He stood there silently at my shoulder until I threw away the cup and turned around, and I saw he was frowning.

“What?” His scrutiny unnerved me. I looked away and saw principal violist Daniella Lewis walk in, scowl at us, and cross the room to sit down.

“I knew it,” he said quietly. “You look terrible. What happened?”

I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about this with Dwight–he was insanely jealous of Alexis Brooks. Just the mention of our concertmaster’s name could sour a conversation. But it wasn’t like this one had been going so well anyway. “There was some excitement this morning. Alexis was pretty upset. But I think it all worked out alright in the end–it sounds like you’re going to play the Bach Double with him next week. Pretty cool, right?”

Dwight didn’t appear to think so. He stared at me a moment longer, like he was trying to hear everything I hadn’t said. “That’s it? Our high-and-mighty concertmaster was upset?” He paused. “And that upset you?”

“Well, he sounded to me like he might leave the symphony for awhile there.”

Dwight snorted. “And that would be a Terrible, Bad Thing, right?” He looked like he was thinking about stomping off. “Look, there was a Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra before Alexis Brooks came here. I’m sure we’d survive if he left.”

I shook my head. “It wasn’t the same, Dwight. You were here before Alexis came, you must know that. I just got here six months ago and I can tell. Newton’s too small a town, and the symphony is too new to compete with the big East Coast orchestras. You’d never get the talent you have now without him. People don’t go to Juilliard to play in little mid-west symphonies.”

“People don’t…wait, Ms. I-Went-To-Juilliard, why did you move out here, then?”

I could feel my face turn red. “For the opportunity to work with Alexis Brooks, of course. The greatest violinist of our age–some say the greatest violinist who ever lived. And I get to share the first stand of the symphony with him. I’d have to be crazy to pass that up, right?”

Dwight was staring at me like I was sprouting horns. “And the fact that he was the prime suspect in his wife’s murder–that he stood trial for it, and only got off on a technicality–that doesn’t bother you at all?”

There now.  We’ve officially met both of our main male characters.  And I’m betting you could tell from a mile away that Alexis is awesome and Dwight is trouble, right?

First, Alexis.  I’m not quite as blunt with his introduction as I am with Dwight’s, but the signals are still there.  Chrispen is attracted to Alexis, which is evident in the “ongoing fangirl crush” line, and her remark about his voice.  Also, you’ll notice the nervous way she jumps out of her chair when she hears him coming, the blushing and the blank mind.  We learn more from her reactions to him than from anything she says.  Because of her attraction to him, we are sympathetic to him, even with “accused murderer” thrown in there.

Now that we get to it, that’s quite a line.  “Alexis Brooks, international superstar, accused murderer, and concertmaster of the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.”  I’ve just introduced a character, using not only his first and last name, but three different subtitles, and a couple of adjectives.  Why does that matter?  Because whether I meant to or not, I just made a promise to you.  I just drew your attention to this character, highlighted him in a way you could not ignore.  Lots of people come in and out of a storyline, without a red carpet like that rolled in front of them.

I just promised you that this character is important.  He’d better turn out to be important, too, because readers do not like it when you make promises you don’t keep.

What about Dwight?  If I did my job right, he gives you a bad taste in your mouth the first time you meet him.  Why?

Dwight does a lot of things that, in combination, are very off-putting.  He invades Chrispen’s personal space.  He’s pushy.  He gives people disparaging nicknames.

I also use a bit of dialog to establish that what Dwight says can’t always be trusted.  In this scene, he tells Chrispen that Alexis got off on a technicality.  Later on, we will discover that there was a mistrial, declared for prosecutorial misconduct.  The prosecution had falsified evidence.  Most people would probably not summarize falsified evidence as a technicality–we’ve learned that Dwight will skew things to make Alexis appear as bad as possible.

But the cincher–the one thing about Dwight’s introduction that raises the red flag high into the wind, the one line that sums up this character more than any other–is this one:

 For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I always felt tense when he was around.

She just said it all.  It’s obvious she feels bad about feeling this way; she spends the rest of the paragraph trying to soften her own unconscious judgment of him, telling us how good-looking he is and what friends they are.  It doesn’t matter.  We’ve already heard the truth.

These are the kinds of ways you can give your readers impressions about your characters–even if your viewpoint character doesn’t necessarily share the impression.  The kind of stories I started off talking about use these signals too, and use them very, very well.  The difference is that those stories build these kinds of impressions in order to turn them around.  I use them to follow through on at the end, after spending some story time challenging them.  We feel Dwight is a jerk, but for the most part, he does not behave that way in the first half of the story.  How strongly do we believe our first impression of him?  Will we hold on to it through the first half, or will we be shocked when it turns out to be true?  We feel Alexis to be a good guy, but how strongly will we hold on to that when everyone in the story world is telling us the opposite?

Either approach is valid.  Just be sure you know up front which your is, and that you are telegraphing the signals you mean to send.

What Hollywood Taught Me About Writing -or- Think Like a Mechanic

Today’s topic is one I have been kicking around for awhile, but seem to have trouble putting into words.

There are two sides to writing (at least, arguably there are many more.)  There is the immersive, magical experience that we wish to create for our readers, and sometimes experience ourselves even while we write.  And then there is the mechanical side–the words and their rhythm and whether that works, the scenes and the way they are built to create a plot and whether that works…you can spend a lot of time diving into the mechanics of what makes a good story good, and where a not-so-good story missed the mark.

Usually these two sides work together.  But as writers, I think we have a tendency to put more emphasis on the magical side, and sometimes this works to our disadvantage.  A writer who wishes to regularly produce consistently good work must have a solid understanding of story mechanics.  There just isn’t any other way.  As in any other field, raw talent will only carry you so far.

How many times have you overheard people discussing a movie, and heard someone say, “The book was better?”  How many times have you said it yourself?  To me, this has to do with the magical side of writing.  You are expressing a preference for the experience that was present in the book–and perhaps expressing disappointment in the movie.

But this disappointment is also an opportunity for learning, for deepening your understanding of story mechanics.  Remember that we are dealing with two different media, and that ways of conveying information that work beautifully on the page may not adapt well to the screen.  But at the end of the day, both media would like to tell the same story.

So, in the interest of time, or best utilization of the medium, or any of a hundred other concerns, the decision is made to cut particular scenes from the narrative as it existed in the book.  (This is usually what disappoints us–I know with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, these were my primary disappointments, even though the movies were great.)  Sometimes this will not affect the primary storyline.

But sometimes, scenes that are cut contain information that is necessary to the storyline.  Remember when the Order of the Phoenix movie did not show our characters cleaning the Black house, and so never showed the discovery of the golden locket?  I remember wondering how they would handle that later on, when it became necessary to the plot.

This is where the opportunity for you as a writer is.  With that information gone, the story is broken.  How can you fix it?

You have to think like a story mechanic.  You have to look at the information that needs to be conveyed, and look at the overall storyline, and work out the best spot to put it in there, without breaking anything else.

A lot of writers are loathe to look at a story that way.  They would much rather stay on the magical side.  I think we all start out like that.  Unfortunately the only way to identify and fix a lot of story problems requires the ability to think like a story mechanic.  To step up and really consistently produce quality work, we have to get comfortable with that view, and the sooner the better.

Writing and Portkeys

Do you read or watch Harry Potter?  Because I’m about to make what may well be an annoying analogy:

A good story is like a portkey.

At this point you must figure you know what I’m going to say next.  I’ll say something like, a good story is like a portkey because they both transport you to new places, or something hokey like that, right?

Right?

Well, actually, no.  That is certainly a fine argument, but it’s not the argument I am going to make today.  Today, leaving all abstract concepts of stories as transportation behind, I would like to focus more specifically on how Rowling described the way using a portkey felt. Remember that?  It first showed up in Book 4, and it was pretty vivid if my memory serves.  She described the feeling of something hooking Harry right behind the navel and dragging him along in a breathless rush that he couldn’t stop or control.  Of course, those aren’t her exact words.  But the gist was the same.

That exact sensation is what you get from a well-plotted, well-paced, well-told story.  Remember the last time you started reading a book and stayed up all night, even though you had to get up early in the morning, because you just couldn’t put it down?  You just had to find out what happened next.  No matter what.

Do you agree?  To me, this is one of the ultimate goals of writing, and also one of the ultimate tests.  Does your story reach out and drag the reader to the end in a breathless rush they can’t stop or control?

If not, how can you change it so that it does?

Sparks

Last time we talked about ideas, and how we might work a spark into an idea, into a story.

Today, let’s talk some more about sparks.

The spark, if you recall, is what we called that tiny seed, too small to even call an idea.  But with some care we can sprout it into an idea that we can work into a story.  In our last discussion, the spark was a single image.  Asking questions about that image helped to develop our story idea.

But what we didn’t discuss was where that spark came from.  You’ve got to have something to start with, no matter how small.

Sparks can come from anywhere.  In the last post I wanted an example, something intriguing, that would be good to further the discussion.  So I thought about it for a few minutes and that’s what I came up with.  Sometimes that will happen.

But if it doesn’t, it’s important to remember that the world around you is rife with sparks.  You may find sparks in things other people assign no importance to.  The crucial thing is to be prepared to catch them.  To push our analogy, any spark will fizzle and die if it isn’t caught and nurtured into a flame.

How do you catch them?  Here you have lots of options.  I always have a small memo-size notebook in my purse, and it’s handy to grab and jot notes in while I’m out.  You can also keep one on your nightstand in case you find something in a dream that feels like story fodder.

Most cellular phones these days have features that can be used for this.  You can use an application to write yourself a quick note, or send yourself an email with your thoughts.

Some people prefer to speak their thoughts.  I’ve known people who carried microcassette recorders, or their newer flash-memory-based equivalents, to catch these types of ideas.  You could even call your home phone and leave yourself a message!

The important thing is to make yourself a note of what caught your attention, and come back to it later when you’re ready to ask questions.  A particular bit of overheard dialog, a peculiar piece of action seen from afar–any number of ordinary things can spark an idea.  All you have to do is make sure you are prepared to catch them when they fly.

Ideas–A Practical Exercise

Lawrence Block once commented in one of his articles on writing–and I’m paraphrasing here–that the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is misleading; it implies the writer is struck by an idea for a story, and from there everything is golden.

He’s right–the process of writing is an endless generation of ideas, one after the other.  Character development, plotting, backstory–all of them are nothing but the writer asking themselves questions and then dreaming up the answers, one after another, until the story is finished.

So, here you are, and you want to write a story.  But you’re sitting there with a blank page and nothing particular coming to mind to put on it.  Now what?

If you’re like most writers, you have a glimmer of an idea.  Maybe not a full-fledged story–not yet–but maybe a character, or a compelling conflict, or a bit of engaging business you want to use, or just a general thought of “I’d like to tell a story about this.”

First, we need to abandon the notion that the blank page–or empty Word document–in front of us at this moment is our story.  We’re going to do some work on this idea first.  This is the part of the writing process that to me is most like magic–starting with nothing and stringing stuff out of your head onto the page until you have a solid story.

Next, we need to abandon the notion that there are any “wrong” or “bad” answers.  As you work up ideas, you’ll be making up answers to your own questions.  Some answers you’ll like better than others.  Some answers will make you want to keep looking for a different answer 🙂  That is fine.  This is your story, the only one who decides what the right answers are is you.  The right answer is the one that leads to a story that you want to tell.

Let’s say I have in mind a particular image.  It’s not a whole story, but it’s compelling and I would like to turn it into a story.  I am imagining a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

This is my spark; the thing that’s making me want to write.  Your spark could be anything.  The process is always the same.  At the top of this blank sheet of paper, I am going to write out my spark.

Spark: a woman, standing in front of her dresser, pointing a revolver at her reflection in the mirror.

There are lots of questions I could ask here to start fleshing this idea out.  The old saws we learned in journalism class serve well:  Who?  What?  Where?  When?  How?

But the King of all questions is Why?  If you only get to ask one question, make it Why.  Why? is the question that will get you to the heart of things faster than any other.  I could ask Who and do a detailed character sketch of the woman with the revolver.  I could ask Where and go into great detail about the bedroom she’s in, or What and discuss the revolver.

But the first question I’m going to ask is Why?

Question: why is she pointing a gun at her own reflection?

This is where I start just making things up.  You’ve got to turn off your internal critic, the one who’ll happily inform you that all of your ideas stink.  Frankly, you aren’t looking for your internal critic’s opinion here.

You are looking for your own.  You are going to start making up answers, throwing them out there.  How will you know you have a good one?  You’ll feel it.  You’ll get shivers, or goosebumps, or you’ll just stare at your writing on the page and say “Wow.”

Answers: People usually point guns at things because they are afraid of them.  Or they want to eat them.

Is she afraid of her own reflection?  Maybe.  Maybe she is insane, and we’re demonstrating it here, with a gun in the dressing room mirror.

Or maybe her reflection really is dangerous.

That–that right there.  That is when I felt like I was onto something–something interesting, something scary–something I would want to write.  I’m on the right track there.

Given the same question, the answer that you react to may be different.  That’s fine–your story should be yours.

So I’ve got my first answer that I really like.  All of that other stuff above it is just harmless chatter.  When I’m done here, I can copy out the useful bits onto a clean sheet of paper so that all I have left is the good stuff.

What do I do now?

Of course!  I ask:

Question: Why is her reflection dangerous?

And I start making up answers until one clicks with me.  And then I look at that answer, and see what questions it prompts.  And at some point farther on down the page, I’m going to feel like I have enough material to start writing, so I will.  When I reach a point in the narrative where I feel like I need to know more to continue, I will come back to this paper and ask some more questions.

It’s perfectly possible to carry this idea out to something a story could be written from.  I may do that, if it would be helpful.  But if you’re struggling with ideas and are interested in the process, it would probably be even more helpful to give it a go yourself.

I’d love to see what you come up with.  I’m sure it will be awesome.

Rules of Magic Part II–Book Recommendation #2

If you found the discussion of magic below interesting, know that I have just barely scratched the surface.  If you’re interested in further, deeper discussion of magic systems in fantasy, and how to make them believable, I have a couple further resources for you to check out.

Holly Lisle has been my go-to source for everything writing related for years.  This article is one of the first things of hers I read, and it really opened my eyes to how complex a topic magic can be, and how much more thought I needed to give it.

Fantasy Is Not For Sissies–Real Rules for Real Worlds

Around the same time, I bought my copy of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Although magic is only a small part of what Card teaches in this book, it stood all my previous thoughts about magic on their head.  It taught me an entirely new way of thinking about what magic is and how it relates to the world you are building.  For me, it took the thought process that began when I read Holly’s article to the next level.

And you could do worse than to read the rest of the book, too.  It’s one of a handful of writing books that I have kept around for years after I first read them, and I still periodically pull it out and read it again.  I find something new to think about every time I read it.