Tag Archives: writer’s craft

Outline as Insurance -or- How I Saved My Own Skin

Thursday morning, I had a car accident.

The Good: my vehicle was the only one involved, and both my and my two year old who were in the car are okay.

The Not So Good: The accident was a rollover.  In a minivan.

I carry a Vaultz locking storage case as a purse, with my manuscript and all my supplemental notes inside.  In this case, I had a bunch of newly written material clipped to the front as well.  Almost all of the glass broke out of the van, so the storage case got smushed around in the mud and the rain.  Still, it did its job and the manuscript & other materials were safe.  Even the pages clipped on the front are legible, if not very pretty.

Here’s the thing–since the accident writing anything at all has been difficult.  Usually when I write it’s not so much like work, but more like plugging into a source and downloading.  Words come as fast as I can write them.

Now, not so much.  I’m slogging now–having a hard time coming up with words and making them sound right.  I don’t know if it’s because of the emotional upset (which honestly sounds kind of lame to me) or if it’s because I had a mild concussion (I’m having uncharacteristic trouble finding words when I speak, reading and doing math as well, so there may be something to that) but it is not much fun.  My memory is shot as well, my short-term memory anyway.  What sounds like a great idea now will be out of my head and gone in thirty seconds, as if it never existed at all.

This book is close to the end, but I wouldn’t be able to finish it in this state if my manuscript was all I had.

Fortunately for me, I had weeks ago composed a scene outline to the end of the book.  And in my notes I have summaries of those scenes, some very detailed with dialogue and lines of text that are meant to be included in the final scene.

So, instead of having to create all of this material from nothing–which I don’t think I could do right now, maybe in a few weeks–all I have to do is follow my map to the end.  I can focus on the writing itself, which is difficult enough right now.

So what’s my point here?  Just this–as you all know, stuff happens.  And when it does it almost never has the decency to phone ahead so you know it’s coming.  Contingency plans are a good thing.  Backup files, hardcopy printouts put somewhere safe…you never know when you’re going to need a safety net.  Most of the time it’s just extra caution that isn’t really needed in the end.

But when it is needed, you’ll be mighty thankful to have it.

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?

Pantsing vs Plotting – a more personal view

 If you’ve read To Plot or Not To Plot or To Plot or Not To Plot Part II, you have a feel for my general view on plotting vs pantsing.

However, the reasons I give in those posts tend to be generic arguments that apply to most people, the kind of thing you will probably hear a lot whenever this debate comes up.

Today I’d like to add one more reason I’m in favor of plotting, a more personal reason that may not apply to anyone else in the world but me.  🙂

First, know that I would pay good money *not* to be a main character in one of my novels.  My main characters never have an easy go of it.  They lose people they cherish, they get beat down and have to get back up again…and again…and again…  I don’t know if I have ever written a story that I would actually want to be in.

Second, I get pretty involved when I write.  I was working on a scene for The Lost Concerto last night that drove this home to me.  This particular event had been planned since before my pen ever touched the paper for the first word of this book.  I had known it was coming since the very beginning, no surprises here.

And yet, when I wrote the scene, I got totally worked up.  My main character was freaking out, completely losing it over this thing that had happened–and I found that by the time I put my pen down, so was I.  Whoever believes writing is easy doesn’t write like I do.  For my characters to feel anything, I have to feel it first.  That can put a person through the wringer.

And that is why I prefer plotting.  My characters walk through hell, and that means I have to walk through hell with them.  I don’t know if I would stick through that, without knowing for certain that in the end there would be a resolution that would make everything worth it.  And for me, the best way to be certain is to find that resolution up-front, before I even start writing, and hang on to it like a talisman while I ride the rocket-sled to hell with my characters.

That doesn’t always mean the resolution I had in mind will be what actually happens at the end–even with the best plotting, things will change while you’re writing.  But for me, it serves its purpose–which is getting me through to the end to find out what the resolution really will be.

Announcing the New Arrival

If you hang around here very often, you may have noticed that I sneaked a change into my works in progress list.  I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I wasn’t sure how plausible my new project was–I’ve been spending a lot of time kicking around ideas and possible plots.

But I’ve invested enough time in it now, and I’ve gotten far enough along in the process…and the product I’m seeing developing is solid enough…it’s time to formally announce the new arrival I kind of slipped in.

My newest work in progress is…

The Lost Concerto follows the continuing adventures of Alexis Brooks and Chrispen Marnett.  It takes places almost one year after the end of Concerto.  The storyline features more of the same nail-biting suspense that made the first book a favorite with readers.

To be honest, I did not originally envision Concerto as the beginning of a series.  One of the early reviews on Concerto included this line:

Concerto would be a good first book in an ongoing series; it is an easy read that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it to the very last page.

At the time, I have to admit, I focused more on the grabbing attention and holding it to the last page part–that seemed to me pretty high praise for a suspense novel, or any novel, for that matter.  Besides, how could Concerto possibly be part of a series?  The story was done, right?

That line was a great blurb quote, the kind of thing you use all over the place.  And the more I saw it, the more that bit about a series stuck in my mind.  It took me a while to decide to seriously think about it, and see what I could come up with.  I never planned it to be a series, but I adore the characters.  The chance to write more about them was too good to pass up.

And the story that had developed–and is still developing–out of all of this is good.  I can’t wait to find out if readers agree.

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.

Dream Sequences and Formatting

If you’re like most writers I know, making your words look pretty on the page is kind of an obsession of yours.  Formatting text so that it looks nice is a habit of yours, sometimes a rather time-consuming habit.  There are times when you even take formatting to a whole new level, using it to highlight or emphasize artistic choices you have made in your text.

If you are a self-published author, formatting is a whole new can of  worms, because you have final control over how your books look, on the inside as well as the outside.  It’s liberating, but it’s also a double-edged sword, because formatting done badly can turn a reader off a book pretty quickly.

One thing that tends to turn up fairly often in my work is dream sequences.  Dreams are fascinating, and can be one way to introduce almost paranormal elements into work that isn’t actually paranormal.

Two of my currently available works, Concerto and The Crystal Cave, both feature dream sequences.  The dream sequences are important, even necessary, to the story.  One problem we face as writers, is how to make a dream sequence apparent as a dream.  One way I chose to do this is with formatting.

In The Crystal Cave, one of the first scenes is a story-changing dream sequence.  To help indicate to the reader that something different was going on here, I used a combination of formatting and tense change.  Crystal Cave is told in past tense.  But for the dream sequence, the narrative changes to present tense.  We experience the dream as it happens, in real time.

But just the sudden change to present tense would, I felt, be confusing.  To set the text apart from the rest, I also chose to italicize the dream sequence.  Are there rules about this sort of thing?  Not that I am aware of.  But I think the finished product works well, and it is immediately apparent where the dream begins, and where ordinary reality resumes.

In Concerto, on the other hand, there is no special formatting, no tense change, to alert us to the dream sequence.  It’s a different situation there, and resulted in a different approach.

Concerto opens with a dream sequence.  Now I personally hate it when a narrative begins with a dream and sucks you in, before letting you know several pages later that, oh, by the way, none of that was real.  It feels like a trick, and it gets you invested in situations that turn out to be false.  I was in a quandry–the nightmare was important, crucial, to the story, and it had to be the opening.  On the other hand, the last thing I wanted was to trick my readers.  How could I open with a dream without it coming across as a trick?

First, I used my chapter headings.  Concerto has a very few chapters, and they are named after the parts of a classical concerto.  But each chapter also has a subheading.  So I used the subheading of the opening chapter to indicate that this was a dream sequence.  My chapters:

  • Ritornello: The Nightmare
  • Movement One: The Nightmare Continues
  • Movement Two: On the Trail of a Madman
  • Movement Three: Prelude to Destruction
  • Finale

Second, I changed my opening line.  Instead of opening in the action of the dream, I opened with “The dream was always the same.”  The opening line tells you, straight up, that the sequence you are about to read is a dream.

Are there other solutions to these problems?  Of course–there will be as many answers as there are writers.  The important thing is that, at some point in the process, we all take a step back and look at our stories as the readers will see them, and consider how we might make the journey easier for them.

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.