Tag Archives: Rewriting

Okay, so you have your novel started…so, now what?

One of the wonderful things about NaNoWriMo is it forces thousands of writers to get the writing party started. This raises the question of: Now what?

The answer is deceptively simple: FINISH IT.

Okay, I can’t leave it at that. Simple answers just aren’t in my nature. Why? It’s because the simplest answers often hold the hardest truths, and most difficult objectives.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t 50,000 immediately publishable words. I’ll circle back to that point in a moment. Most adult-reader novels (and no, I’m not taking about those at the top of the rating system, but all books that fall outside the picture, children’s, and middle grade markets) these days are more than 50,000 words. Young Adult novels use to fall into the 50-60,000 range, but with the breakaway success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, Young Adult often exceeds this mark as well. Books in the fantasy genre tend to be on the higher end of the word count spectrum. If you’re not Brandon Sanderson or George R.R. Martin, your likely word count is between 80,000 and 120,000 words. Romance and Thrillers tend to ranger closer to the70- 80,000 word mark. So, our task isn’t done when at the end of November we hit the magical 50,000 words. We can’t spell check and e-mail the partially-finished manuscript out to our top ten fantasy agents and expect them to rush to represent us. Seriously, don’t do this.

Tip #1 then is to write until done. Whether you need another 20,000 words or another 60,000 words, you must finish the story and type “THE END.” Having the privilege of typing that phrase a number of times, let me tell you it’s the best feeling. Revel in it for a day or two. By typing “the end” you’ve done what most of the want-to-be writers never do. You’ve finished the story. Congratulations. It’s a huge accomplishment.

But, you’re not ready to hit send yet. RULE 1 – and unlike pirate “rules” you are not allowed to ignore this one – No story should go from the first time you type “the end” immediately into an agent’s or editor’s hands. The story isn’t ready, and worse, if you had a connection with that person, you might have wasted your “big chance” on an inferior product. Hopefully, your first draft isn’t far off the mark, but everyone needs some editing before publication.

A very wise and funny lady once told me “give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft.” Thank you, Lisa Scottoline for that advice. The saying isn’t unique to Lisa, but she’s the first person I heard it from where it sank in. I mentioned above very few people can write 50,000 publishable words on the first pass. I think outliners have an advantage over pantsers like me because the outliner already beta-tested, as it were, the story’s structure. For most of us, the hard work comes after we type “the end” and start the editing phase.

Tip #2 – Put the draft away.

We fall in love everytime we write. I love my characters, even the really horrible people, and their story by the time I type “the end.” I’ve spent months or years with them. Like any other parent, this unconditional love means I’m blind to the characters’ and story’s flaws. I generally need at least a month before I can objectively look at a novel I’ve written before I can wade into the forest of words with a machette. Take at least a week. Longer if you can. The distance will grant you objectivity, and you’ll need that for the editing/ rewriting process.

Tip #3 – Outline the story.

Okay, this is where opinions will vary widely and you’ve going to need to experiment to find out what works for you. Tip 3 is where the editing process starts. Whether you are an outliner or a pantser, my recommendation is to outline your completed story to ensure you hit all the “beats” you need. I’ve written about the Hollywood Formula of story telling here before and we just had a great review of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat which uses this formula here so I won’t replow this ground. Please check out those two posts because the outlining and story telling techniques set out in both are helpful in structuring a story or fixing one when it’s leaped the tracks. If you use this method to dissect your story, the “what’s missing” to take this from fair, to publishable, to kick-butt runaway sucess become obvious which makes the editing process less painful.

Tip #4 – It’s okay to delete.

This tip is a version of Stephen King’s imfamous phrase, “kill your darlings.”

I had a professor who was also a playwright. He’d adapted a well known classic novel that hadn’t been previously adapted to the stage. One of the reasons, I think, this particular work of this very well known and revered writer hadn’t been adapted was the “novel” was originally published week-by-week in a newspaper. Sometimes the week’s episode fit into the overall story arc and sometimes it didn’t. The professor overlayed a plot line of the writer’s actual life with the story. The idea was brilliant. The first act’s execution suffered because the professor wouldn’t kill his, or the original writer’s “darlings.” The tech crew (of which I was one) spent the act-break telling the audience the one scene they needed to know from the first act, and begging them to stay for the second act. On a good night we only lost half the house at intermission. The second act was brilliant, beautiful and heart-breaking. The problem was almost no one saw it. Instead of listening to advice, killing the scenes which were neat but interrupted the story, and making the play a long one-act, the professor insisted on his version which kept all these odd-ball bits. Because he wouldn’t “kill his darings”, the professor killed the entire play.

If you have a bit you love and that’s the only reason you’re keeping it, use the cut and paste function. Cut it out of the current story. It’s a cancer that will infect the whole work. Paste it into a file named “darlings” or “neat bits” and save. At some point that darling will rise from its technological grave and be given new life in a story it belongs in. Have faith in yourself that you’ll find a home for it in some other work. If a bit isn’t advancing character and plot, it doesn’t belong in this story. Take it out.

Tip #5 Stop editing when it’s time.

People who advocate for limited editing have a valid point. You can edit a story to death. At some point, you have to say it’s as good as I can make it and let it go. Do you send it to agents and editors now? No.

Tip #6 When you’ve gotten it as good as you can, phone a friend.

Remember when I said writers are parents who are blind to their child’s faults? This is where that maxim comes into play again. You need a trusted reader or six. These people are new to your story and can see what you can’t. Whether you’ve had other readers in the editing process, this group’s purpose is to give you impressions (not line edits). This is the group I want to come back to me with emotional comments like “hu?” or “I cried here.” and not technical ones. You want cheerleaders out of it. If you get people who finished only because they are your friends or, worse, get the DNF (“did not finish”) comment, you have a problem that needs to be corrected before you go past “Go” and collect your book advance.

Tip #7 Send it out.

A professional writer’s light at the end of the tunnel is publication. You can’t get published if your story languishes on your computer’s harddrive.  You must submit. Do your research. Meet agents and editors. Send the story to the person it is a good fit for. Self-publish if that’s what you want to do. Then the waiting begins.

Tip #8Start all over.

While you are waiting, guess what you need to do. Yup. That’s it. Write another story. Kismet happens, but you need to put yourself out there. Finish more stories. Give them wings and send them out to the world. Keep at it long enough and you’ll suceeed, whatever that term means to you.

For me,. suceess means writing another 2,500 words today. I best get started.

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Preparing for Productivity

We’re writers, so we write, right? Absolutely.

But that’s not all we do, and honestly the actual writing of a manuscript is far from the most time-intensive part of creating a novel. In fact, the writing of a viable manuscript is the culmination of a great deal of preparatory effort. We might spend months working on a story before we sit down to write that viable draft.

That final manuscript is like a beautifully crafted building we hope will stand firm for ages, so it must be built upon a firm foundation. Few people visit any architectural wonder just to say, “Wow, great foundation.” Most of us have eyes only for the finished product. Leave it to the architect to know all about the foundation.

Same principle with writing. A great foundation allows a manuscript to reach its full potential. Careful preparation allows a writer to pound out tremendous word count. For example, just yesterday I wrote about 13,000 words. During one writing retreat this year, I wrote 50,000 words in one week. And they were good words, not throw-away fluff.

So, can I write 10,000 words a day, every day of the year? Of course not. Those kind of word counts are not possible unless you’ve already got the foundation set. Much time is spent preparing for those burst of productivity. I’ve discussed those burst-writing times in detail in the past here.

What are some of those foundational items we as authors, the architects of our stories, need to understand? What are ways we can prepare for productivity? The specifics of the list will vary depending on each writer’s style, but regardless of how we get there, we still need to end up with a firm foundation, or the story will fall.

Some common items that apply to just about everyone writing fiction include:

World building. What is our setting? Where is the story taking place? In what environment, what culture, what physical reality? Are characters human or animal or robot or jelly beans? Until we know these things, either written down or firm in our minds, we cannot begin a viable draft.

I write fantasy, and I generate copious notes about the world, the nations, cultures, religions, geography, climate, magic system, value systems, etc. Until it’s real for me, I cannot make it real for my readers.

Characters and conflict. There is no story until there is a conflict. For a conflict to exist and to matter, we need to have characters to torture. Before we craft scenes that will capture readers and draw them into the story, these elements must be clear.

One thing I do at the beginning of a story is to generate a list of names I feel fit this project. In my YA fantasy novel, I chose Scottish names for one nation and German names for another. Behind The Name is an excellent site to find names. Then when I need a name, instead of losing productivity trying to invent one, I just turn to my list, choose a name I’ve already decided will work in the context of this story, and move on with hardly a pause.

For those who are planners, who like to outline and craft a story before sitting down to write that viable manuscript, the list of preparatory items gets a lot longer, including:

Timeline sketches. Particularly for complex stories with multiple characters, charting out the timeline and how the various POV threads will interact can be invaluable. Even if you only have one main character and one main protagonist, the exercise of plotting out when and how they’ll intersect over time can spark new ideas or identify holes in the planned plot.

For me, this helps particularly in complex endings. When tons of things are going on and the action jumps from one POV to another, and from one quick scene to another, weaving all of that in together into a tight, constantly escalating climax is daunting. A high-level timeline sketch keeps it all under control.

Character profiles. Who are your characters, what is their backstory? What do they want? Why can’t they have it? What are they going to do about it? Knowing all this for every main character, and even for important supporting characters provides fodder for tremendous depth and complexity of your story.

Character development and depth has been a challenge for me, and this exercise has helped tremendously.

Outline. How is your plot going to roll out? What scenes will you write to drive the story forward? How exactly will you generate empathy for the hero in the beginning, reveal the true conflict at the first plot point, illustrate the stakes, etc? For planners, the outline is the skeleton, the frame upon which you build the story. This is where great energy and time is spent as you explore all the possibilities.

My outlines keep getting longer. This is where I spend the bulk of my creative thinking time. It’s so much easier for me to explore different options and look for ways to ratchet up tension or stakes or conflict up front than it is after I’ve written 50,000 words and realize something is missing.

For those who prefer to free-write, to discover their story through the act of following the muse down the rabbit hole, the preparation process is more like exploring the back roads around your city at night. There’s a certain excitement to driving into the darkness, not entirely sure where the road will take you. The trip may take a lot longer then expected, you’ll take wrong turns, and have to back track. You may end up needing to return to the very start of your trip and begin anew.

For those free-writers, or pantsers as they’re often called, the early drafts of a story are like those late-night drives in the darkness. This is where you discover the story, just as a planner discovers their story through the outlining process. This effort can take a great deal of time, and through this process, the free-writer is building the foundation of their story. Once all of the necessary elements are in place, only then can the free-writer begin a viable draft that can stand successful.

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start. Writers must think about it, particularly as we begin a new novel. Understanding the foundation we must build, regardless of how we choose to get there, is one of the most important things writers need to grasp.

This knowledge, and understanding how we individually approach the foundational elements in our story, allow us to become truly productive. Once we have these elements in place, we can dive into that manuscript, and the words will flow faster than we can write them. I type pretty fast, but sometimes I can barely keep up.

I started as a free-writer, and over time and as I’ve come to better understand these foundational requirements, I have slowly drifted across the spectrum to becoming more of a story planner. I free-write within each scene. This hybrid approach, which I think is fairly common, provides the most focused, most productive result for me while still allowing for some of those midnight drives.

How do you approach these foundational elements in your own stories? What other foundation blocks would you add to the list?

 

Critiques ““ Part 1 ““ Understanding the Process

Recently I gave a presentation to a local writers’ group on the art of giving critique. To fully understand and engage in the critique process we need to first understand why we write, what a critique is, how an author can help the process and how to give a critique. In this blog, we’ll talk about why we write and why receiving a critique can be so difficult.

Why do we write?

When we understand why and what makes us so sensitive to feedback, it actually becomes easier to absorb the information we receive in an impartial way.

I, like many of you, write because I’m miserable when I don’t. As others need to breathe, so I need to write. We all write because we are story tellers – we have something to say, we see worlds and creatures and characters the average person does not, we give commentary about the human condition, our politics, our society, our values, our relationships – we are observers with a unique way of expressing ourselves – BUT most important, for us, writing is fun and it is who we are.

We have an idea – that is personal. We think. We sweat, we write and rewrite hoping that the story we tell is understood by others. The crux is that we, the writers become so intimate with the process and the material that it feels personal – and it is because every fabric of our being has been poured into the story.

So when someone doesn’t like what we’ve done and how we’ve done it, it feels personal even when it isn’t. But, when we focus on the need to express the characters and world we see, it becomes much easier to accept feedback.

This is not dissimilar to mining for gems. We find the diamond. It is rough. It is uncut. We cut. We polish. We wanting to reveal the heart of the stone – the heart we know is there. We work with experts who can help us get the angle just right on every facet. Then we polish until it sparkles.

Writing is no different. We have a gem stone of an idea. We hone our tools. We dig. We scrape. Sometimes we cut and reshape, making every facet as stellar as it can be. And then we must ask if others see what we do.

The critique process should help us polish our gems, to make the story stronger, to make its heart shine brighter. And, if you have a good critique group, they’ll help you do just that.

When we understand that our goal is to express an idea, to create a story which is both entertaining and enlightening, the feedback feels less personal, more constructive because we know that everything we do makes our gem shine brighter.

There are two other things to remember:

1) learning that the gem we polished isn’t as bright as it can be, hurts. And it can hurt a lot. That’s part of being human. Part of being a writer is understanding that and gracefully going forward by thoughtfully considering the comments.

2) the person giving the critique can get it wrong. As the writer you must also figure that out. But generally, most don’t get it wrong if there are problems with grammar, structure, story arc and character development. And let’s face it, if we don’t solve these problems before submitting, no editor will read the story, let alone help you polish your gem.

The next time we meet, we’ll talk about what a critique is and how to give a good critique.

Dean Wesley Smith: Stop Being In A Hurry

 

A guest post by Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve talked about this on my blog a few times in different ways, but I noticed a few of you have mentioned this “got to hurry” problem, so I figured it was time again.

And no doubt, as I did last week on my first visit to the Superstars Writing Seminar, I may ruffle a few feathers.

What do I mean by being in a hurry?

For some reason, almost all new professional writers have no sense of time in publishing. And no sense of the amount of time it takes to learn the craft and the business. I hear over and over again how fresh writers need to find a way to cut through the “noise” out there, how they need to “promote” their first or second novel, and how they don’t understand why they don’t sell more.

And I hear all the time how writers like me or Kris or Kevin Anderson or Dave Farland or Eric Flint have this huge advantage over beginning writers. But don’t think our advantage is because our names are known. Nope. In fact, often being known hurts us more than it helps. My bestselling novels are not under “Dean Wesley Smith” because of all the media work I did under that name. My bestselling novels are hidden pen names in both the thriller and mystery genres. Names that started fresh. Names that nobody knew.

But we do have an advantage over beginning writers.

Yes, I said it. We experienced old-timers have a huge advantage. We have taken the years and decades to learn how to write better stories and we are all still working to learn. (Do you think the only reason we teach is to help young writers? That’s a big part, sure, but mostly it’s so we can keep learning as well.)

That’s right. Shocking as it may seem, writing better novels and stories–stories that fans want to read–makes us better known. It is not promotion or some silly trick. We sell more because we write better stories.

It really is that simple.

Learning the craft of fiction writing comes from listening to others talk about their ways of doing things, or reading how-to-write books, or studying what other writers do, then putting that information out of your front brain.

In other words, learn it and then forget it. Just go back to writing, and trust that the knowledge will come out of your fingers when you need it.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen for a novel or two. And then suddenly your writing is better and you don’t even know why–but your readers will see it.

Sounds kind of silly, huh? But it’s the way it works. And that method of writing and learning how to write better stories TAKES TIME.

My first published novel was my third written novel, and by the time I had written it, I had already sold over fifty professional-level short stories. Now understand, I sold my first short story in 1975 and didn’t sell my first novel until 1987. A long twelve years, and a thousand-plus rejections.

But with indie publishing, writers today think they can put up their debut novel and sell thousands of copies in the first month. And when they don’t, they either stop writing, or get upset, or blame it on the fact that they have no name recognition. Many new writers never blame poor sales on the fact that maybe they just don’t know how to tell a good story yet.

These same new writers don’t realize that it takes years to learn how to tell a good story, a story that thousands of fans want to read.

Focus on learning how to tell a better story while at the same time learning the business. If you keep writing and learning, eventually you will be a big name writer with a lot of books out and will have to give this same advice to the next generation of writers.So my suggestion is to stop whining about how big names have all the advantages, and start focusing on learning how to write better stories. Stop spending time on promotion and spend the time on the next short story or the next novel. Your best promotion is always your next book.

Remember, every time you say to a professional writer, “The only reason you can do that is because you are . . .” then you have insulted them and all the years and years of typing and work it took them to get to where they are.

We are only better known than you because we spent years learning how to tell a better story. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.

Focus on learning how to tell a better story. Make each story the best one you can do. Practice something new in every story. Get it on the market, then move to the next story.

And keep having fun.