Category: Craft

Nov 06

How learning story structure helps me write faster

I last participated in NaNoWriMo in 2010. Since then, I’ve had two kids, quit my job, and rewritten my novel twice. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit about story structure and am now a reformed pantser (although no one is ever only a plotter or a pantser, many lean far to one side of the spectrum or the other).

Given my love of plotting, then, I didn’t know if I’d ever participate in Nano again. However, I was sufficiently motivated this year, and I’m loving it! And what I love most is how the years of studying story structure are paying dividends in a decidedly write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants month.

Before I learned structure, when I got stuck, I’d ask myself, “What do I want to happen next?” Or maybe even, “What should happen next?” But since I didn’t know anything about that should, I just brainstormed until I came up with a good idea (or any idea).

ThreeActStructure_small

https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JuliusKuschke/20130909/199869/Aristotle_was_not_a_Game_Designer.php

Now, when I want to know what should happen next, I just have to position myself within the framework of structure. “What should happen next? Well, I’ve just passed the call to adventure/inciting event, so now I need to work toward a First Plot Point that will change everything, oh yeah, and reveal the antagonist’s power and/or plan, and force my main character to make a decision to enter the Adventure World.” (Sometimes I even write sentences exactly like that in my brainstorming! Because it’s hard to hold everything there is to know about the First Plot Point in my head all at once.) That is a much easier question to brainstorm an answer for, because structure gives me criteria—a way to judge how good ideas are.

Usually by the time I hit on an idea that meets all those criteria, it’s plenty good enough to roll with! It might take slightly longer to get to that idea than to come up with an answer to my old, more generic questions, but the difference is that I know the specific question will lead me to an answer that won’t paint me into a corner and will leave me with something more novel-shaped at the end. That saves me time both in November and in my future edits!

I cannot recommend K.M. Weiland’s site highly enough. She will kindly and gently lure you into plotting (even if you still like to pants the heck out of the first draft and just apply structure in editing). For a quick rundown (with way more depth available), check out her everything checklist!

P.S. You can support girls’ education and motivate me to finish Nanowrimo this year by donating to the Malala Fund!

Aug 07

How to Format Your Manuscript, Part 2

Level 2: Jediimage

So the last post told you about font formatting and headers/page numbers. This post takes you to the next level of convenience—because that’s really what this is about. When you use the techniques Microsoft Word is expecting, you can get the application to work with you instead of feeling like you’re working against it.

Use styles for chapter headings

Why? Because you get at least two cool features: jumping around easily in your document using the navigation pane and automatically starting each chapter on a new page.

Here’s the top of my navigation pane in the full manuscript when I use Heading 1 as the chapter heading style:
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By default, Heading 1 is a larger and possibly different font, but I updated the style to be the same font (instructions also in previous post), just without first-line indentation and centered instead of left-aligned (from the Modify Style dialog, in the lower-left corner choose Format > Paragraph).

I mentioned a second cool feature, which is this: I also clicked the all-important button to force automatic page breaks.
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No more hitting enter until you get to the next page, or even Ctrl-Enter that might get deleted accidentally. I also happen to think it looks nicer if there’s a little more breathing room after the chapter title than after a regular line, so I add space after the paragraph (which gets added automatically without having to double-enter).
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But what about the first chapter?

I’m glad you asked! If you follow agent Mary C. Moore’s advice, you know she says to just begin the novel right after the title on the same page. No problem! Put your cursor in “Chapter 1”, then open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph, Alt+o+p, etc.) and unselect the “page break before” option I showed above. This will change only chapter 1 and not affect the style for other chapters. This is technically a hack (content-level formatting) but it’s good enough for now.

Right-aligned tabs

You’re doing great, but then you have to put the word count on the right side of the page. What is this magic? Spaces? Tabs? A new textbox? All functional hacks (and I don’t turn up my nose at hacks, as I just demonstrated), but for ease of use, you can’t beat the right-aligned tab. As you can see below, where I’ve “shown invisibles” (formally known as formatting marks), I use just one tab and it’s aligned to the right margin.

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If you’re using US Letter paper with 1-inch margins, the usual standard in the US, you want to set a right tab at 6.5″. As the link describes, you can do that with the ruler, but I find the Tab dialog easier.

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Voilà! Type your name, then Tab, then your word-count. You can also use this technique if you want to have both left- and right-aligned information in your header. Why might you do that? Here’s a teaser for the next post:

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(OK look, I feel bad about not including Padawan Obi-Wan in the last post, but I loved that flail GIF, so here’s some more handsome for you.)

Image result for young obi wan kenobi

Jan 13

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Oct 05

Faze vs. Phase

The noun phase most commonly means “a stage in a process of change or development” (a phase of the moon, a kid going through a phase) or “a state of matter” (e.g., a phase change of water is going from liquid to gas). Its verb form is less common but means “to carry out in gradual stages” (e.g., to phase in or out a tax credit).ijrq_trek_iii_movie_phaser If you’re a nerd like me, you might also think of a phaser, a weapon that delivers a beam that can be set to “stun.” 🙂

The verb faze means “to disturb or disconcert (someone),” as in, “his antics don’t faze me.”

You generally do not want anyone to “phase” you…even at stun.

So here’s your grammar quip.

Captain Kirk observed several phases of the creature’s lifecycle,
but nothing could faze him with his phaser at the ready.

As a side note, I think I fixed the mobile viewing experience on my website, so let me know if you’re still not getting a mobile view when you view my site on your phone.

May 28

Confessions of an Inveterate Pantser

Or, “How I learned to stop bumbling and love the outline.”

On the spectrum from “write by the seat of your pants and see where it goes” [whence “pantser”] to “plan every scene before you write a first draft” [“plotter”], I’m naturally a lot closer to the former. I like to wait for inspiration and just write what comes. I wanted to plan ahead, but I didn’t have any better luck figuring out what should come next, and then I also didn’t have any words written.

Unfortunately, after two abandoned novels and too many anguished hours staring at that blinking, taunting cursor, I realized that discovering the story by drafting wasn’t working for me. I spent too much time polishing words in stories that meandered and fizzled out, and I learned the hard way that pretty words can’t make a boring story more interesting.

The big problem with “outlining” was, as I said, that I didn’t know what should come next. Enter Story Engineering. It’s positioned as the answer to “what comes next.” Unbelievably, in all the books on craft that I’d read and all the creative writing courses I took in college, no one had ever mentioned that stories follow a structure. Stories have common elements, just as houses do, and the architectural answer to “What comes next?” is known! It was a literally life-changing revelation. Delivered in Larry Brooks’s occasionally obnoxious but totally spot-on style, it was a swift kick in the pants for this pantser. (It turns that screenwriters have known about this for ages, but I really appreciated someone making the mapping to novels for me. If you want a kinder, gentler introduction to story structure, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site and book.)

Now when I’m “outlining” (which certainly does not involve Roman numerals for me), I’m no longer staring at a blank page. Instead, I’m solving a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and I have criteria by which to judge whether a plot or character decision is working. If I’m stuck, I can pick a direction and plan in it and realize whether or not it works without any wasted prose. (It still takes time, of course, but not nearly the same kind of time it takes to draft in pretty words and without the temptation to polish them.)

Most importantly, I’ve found that for me, the joy of discovering my story isn’t diminished at all by planning it ahead. I get just as much thrill out of nailing plot points as I did when drafting. I still have pages and pages and pages of brainstorming notes, in both spiral notebooks and OneNote, but since I’m not intending those words to ever be seen by anyone else, I don’t put any pressure on myself to make them beautiful, which means I can crank them out much faster. I can brainstorm with friends and critique partners (CPs) and try out and discard ideas so much faster when I’m dealing with a few-hundred- or few-thousand-word plot plan than with an unwieldy 100,000-word draft. When my CPs discovered a serious plot hole in the middle of the outline, I was a tiny bit demoralized but could just wade in and fix the outline without losing any drafted words.

The best part of story structure is that you can still be a pantser if you want. You can do as much outlining as you want and then dive in. I knew by feel when I had reached a detailed-enough outline that I needed to start drafting. You can outline down to the scene level before you write a word of prose, or you can totally pants your whole first draft, then apply structure to it ex post facto in the editing process.

Of course, this revelation means that all of us will have stronger plots now, which means we’ll all be more competitive in getting published… but as a reader, I say, hooray to all the fantastic books I’ll soon have available to me!

Apr 18

Tenet or Tenant? Grammar help you can remember!

A basic tenet of owning a rental:
Your tenant quality is fundamental!

Bonus! I’ll give you pictures.

Tenet: a belief (not necessarily religious) or principle

Tenant: someone who rents a space

Tennant: To me, always the Tenth Doctor

Okay, yes, I was basically just looking for an excuse to have a Tenth Doctor picture.

Mar 22

Affect vs. Effect: Grammar Help You Can Remember

These two words, affect and effect, cause a great deal of consternation in English, no doubt because they sound similar and each can be either a noun or a verb. The quickest rule of thumb is that, in most cases, you affect something (verb) and cause an effect (noun).

Side note: the noun affect is pronounced AFFect, as opposed to all the other instances of both words, which put the emphasis on the second syllable.

Second side note: the less common meaning of the verb affect is to pretend or feign something (as in the example in the link where one can “affect a Southern accent”). I couldn’t fit that into the rhyme. 🙂

Finally, here’s your hopefully memorable quip:

From a cause, an effect, about that there’s no doubt;
And you’re effecting a change if you bring it about.
Affect as a noun is likely not what you meant,
So affect others’ grammar and send this to them.

Jan 29

Five Stages of (Self-)Editing (PNWA 2015 Session Round-up)

Every writer has to self-edit, even if it’s only to get your work in shape to send to beta readers and agents. There are many resources out there for what to look for when editing (my latest fave), but very little about how to go about doing so effectively. If you’re looking for the latter, here’s a great process to follow!

The very last session I attended at the PNWA 2015 Conference was Saturday at 4 pm, taught by AC Fuller. At the end, he admitted that he’d expected the session to drag, as I had when I started. (I was on my third cup of tea and had woken up early for three straight days to get to the conference, so I was practically sleeping on my feet.) To the surprise of teacher and students alike, it was one of the most energetic sessions I attended all conference! AC was a great teacher, straight to the point and with enough humor to remind us that he’s been there, too. (Note: You can listen to the whole talk if you want to!)

He started with this great reminder about why the self-editing process is hard:

ART

Then he set out to give us “a process to take our rough draft to the point of showing to agents or hiring a professional editor.” Of course, everyone has their own process, but I definitely plan to try this out, as it seems eminently usable and adaptable.

Foes of Editing

  1. Procrastination.
  2. The Inner Critic.

Why do we procrastinate? To avoid pain. Either we don’t want to admit that our writing is garbage, or we’re writing about something painful – or both! Well, your writing does need help, so you might as well get down to it. Hopefully with a process to follow, editing will seem less painful. For #2, try to redirect your Inner Critic to fix problems instead of making value judgments. Practice makes perfect!

Stages of Editing

  1. Relax until you don’t hate the sight of your manuscript. Go on vacation. Brainstorm another novel. Clean all the rooms in your house that went untouched while you were drafting. Give it at least a week.
  2. Read your manuscript. Actually read the whole thing. Try it in a different format, preferably one that’s hard to edit (print and bind it, or send it to your favorite e-reader). Figure out what you were trying to say (theme, character arc, etc.).
  3. Restructure. This time when you read it, write down every change you want to make (in another notebook or document referencing scenes or chapters, not page numbers). Don’t make any changes yet! These changes can be anything from “Look up whether they had longbows in 1204 AD” to “So-and-so is a lame character and we need to make him cooler.” Then, and this was the big one for me, order and categorize all of those changes, from largest to smallest. No sense polishing the prose in a scene you’re going to delete! Go through the changes, starting with the largest, and fix your manuscript one note at a time. Repeat until you get to the bottom of the list.
  4. Rewrite. Maybe, if your prose is pretty good, you can give it to beta readers before step 4 to double-check your structure. [I do this by sending an outline to beta readers, but I usually write the outline after steps 1-3. 🙂 –Ed.] Return to step 1 until you’re happy with the story.
  5. Refine. These are the miniscule corrections – copyediting and perfecting your prose – that you want to do before showing to editors and agents. Repeat this step until it’s perfect. 😉

I can’t wait to attack my WIP with this process!

Sep 15

MG or YA? How do you know? (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

Saturday morning, the last main day of the conference, was the earliest start time of all—8 am! Attendance at all the first sessions was pretty light, but we had a great time at the “Elements of Young Adult and Middle Grade,” a panel discussion with two authors (Janet Lee Carey and Brian Mercer) and two agents (Roseanne Wells and Shannon Hassan). After we woke up a bit, anyway. 🙂

We started off with the very basic question: okay, how do you differentiate Middle Grade from Young Adult, both of which used to be lumped together with “children’s”? The answer has a lot of nuance, but also some pretty basic differences.

Middle Grade Young Adult
Length of book 30-50K words 50-70K words (speculative fiction on the longer end; an established series writes its own rules)
Age of reader 8-12 years 13-18
Age of main character (readers tend to “read up”) 10-13 14-18
Life stage Lots of time at school, still “ruled by adults,” highly involved with family of origin Especially with older characters, getting ready to leave home, dealing with authority, open to romance and sex
Main character arc (not the only one, obviously) Mostly external, sense of going out into the world and righting a wrong Mostly internal, finding an identity, purpose and place in the world

Then we talked about one of the sticky questions: what’s acceptable for sex in YA? The older the main character, the fewer restrictions; there are huge differences between 14- and 18-year-olds, both as readers and as characters. Some publishing houses have specific guidelines, and agents often defer to them. You can make a book feel intense without being explicit (e.g., Speak). MG books are much more sensitive to language, violence and sex because parents are still the main gatekeepers of what their kids read.

Finally we talked about voice, and how it can’t be “taught” but you can pick up an ear by listening to kids and reading popular books. First person is obviously very popular in YA, but if it’s bogging down your narrative, don’t be afraid to do something else. Always do what’s best for your story.

Jul 28

Writing Active Setting (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

(I’ll be doing a series of posts with the highlights of what I learned from various sessions at the 2015 PNWA Conference. This is the first!)

The very first session I attended was “Writing Active Setting,” presented by Mary Buckham. She said many writers have one of two issues with setting in their story:

  1. They have none, so the reader is lost; or
  2. They have too much, and it stops the flow of the story.

“Active setting,” then, is using your description of setting to do double or even triple duty—not just to describe time and place, but also to show character, emotion, or backstory; to evoke emotion; or to orient the reader. (I don’t want to steal all her thunder; she has a series of short books that might soon become one longer book about active setting: http://marybuckham.com/writing-craft/.) Know when readers accept having more setting and utilize that (at the beginning of the story, scene or chapter).

Mary has a great, dry sense of humor, and her workshop was packed with great examples. Here are a few:

  • Do you say, “It was dark. She was scared about meeting the vampires,” or “The grapevines along the side of the road hung like dead men on their trellises”? (I might not be remembering the exact words, because in my notes I only jotted down phrases, but I think you get the intent.)
  • Do you say, “They drove as quickly as traffic would allow” or “Blasting north on the 101”? (The latter gives you insight into the driver’s character, orients you in space, and gives you the hint that we’re on a big freeway — even if you’re not from California, you know that something called just “the 101” is probably not a country back road.)
  • Evoke your character’s mood: “bruise-colored clouds trudging” vs. “cotton clouds waltzing”.
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