Tag Archives: Rewriting

It was disgusting ….

It was disgusting. I don’t usually mind going to hear a once popular band, a relic from the rock “n roll era. I mean you’ve got to give these guys credit. Some have fallen from grace, face first, some withered away when music changed, while others simply went on to do different things. Some of the come backs have been less than stellar while others, despite their aging voices do a fabulous job.

This last come back dream should have been classed as a nightmare. The bass player, the only one who could hold a beat, competed with the drummer whose tinny cymbals accented the pitchy lead singer who was drowned out by the cacophony of screams forming the background vocals. And to think I paid to see them! I never want to imagine that I could ever disappoint anyone, let alone a total stranger, so badly …

So, how do you know if your writing is good enough to put out there? Where is the honest feedback? When do you abandon the dream? How hard do you need to work to make it good?

Traditionally, poets, novelists and short story writers have relied on the feedback from publishers (aka the dreaded rejection) to know if their writing is acceptable. Workshops, classes, writing and critique groups are all good sources for feedback – honest feedback which lessens the chances for rejection. Yet, I read that popular novel The Help was rejected 60 times (and had sold the movie rights) before it found a publisher. Go figure ….

Then there’s indie publishing. Scares the bejeepers out of me. Why? Because so many neophytes remind me of the comeback bands. They don’t know what’s good or bad. At least the come-back bands have an established following to prey upon. Aspiring writers don’t. Some writers have ventured forth on their own and have done well. Others have failed miserably.

Failing because marketing, promotion and distribution are tough things to handle for creative spirits is understandable and eventually can be overcome. Learn to do it yourself, join a writers marketing cooperative, find a small publisher to increase your chances, we can do whatever it takes to get our books out there. But, what if it’s because the writing wasn’t quite there? It’s critical to find people who know what they’re looking for, who can help with plot holes, logic gaps, grammar, etc. Find those people. Even traditional publishers, due to staffing, time and money constraints, want only the best written work.

And it’s the failures which concern me.

So whether you’ll be self publishing or approaching a traditional publisher, take the time to get it right. Time is on your side. A reputation for poor work is never on your side.

Oh and the comeback group, who shall remain nameless, announced they were laying the last track on a new CD. Seriously? After the bomb dropped, they expect me to trust their artistic sensibilities? Never.

So all I can say is, when I decide whether I self publish or woo a traditional publisher, my work will have survived feedback that I can trust. If I ever put a product out there that isn’t well crafted I don’t expect readers to give me a second chance. Publishers either, for that matter. I will only send out my best revised work because when you’re starting out, you have nothing to fall back on. No one to say I’ve seen her do it better.

Your record stands for itself – and if it’s your first shot, make it the best otherwise, that’s all there’ll be!

To Pants or to Plan?

There are two opposing camps when it comes to how an author approaches writing their novel. On one side are the story ‘pantsers’, those who sit down with only a vague idea of their story and start typing. They discover the story through the act of writing it, usually through a multiple re-drafting process. On the opposite side are the ‘planners’, those authors who sit down and design a story to the nth degree before they actually begin the first draft. They might write almost as many words in the outline as they do in the first draft, but end up with fewer re-writes most of the time. Both camps have their avid followers who trumpet the benefits of doing it their way while pointing out the drawbacks of the other philosophy.

I’ve found that most authors fall somewhere in the middle between these two philosophies. We plan some, and we free-write some. Authors will shift along the spectrum between the two philosophies from one project to another, or as their level of experience changes.

I started as a total discovery writer, complete with many drafts of my first novel as the story evolved and I figured out what I was really writing about. Over time, and as I’ve gained a better mastery of the craft, I’ve crept across the spectrum toward the opposite camp. The more of an outliner I become, the more up-front work I invest in a story before beginning to write. Once the outline is ready, I can schedule a ‘burst-writing’ session – a focused period, several days to a week, where I can pound out tons of work based on that outline. I did that last year and wrote 52,000 words in one week. I’m planning to do so again soon with my next novel.

I’ve developed the following outline process:
1. First I do all the high-level brainstorming for the new story. This can take a while as I chew on a new idea and work it from the initial proposal into a viable story worthy of serious consideration. Lots of ideas don’t make it past this first step.

2. Once I feel the story has promise and I’m starting to get a good sense for it, I write down the foundational information I’ve developed so far. This includes character sketches, world-building, and initial plot ideas. The process of writing it all down and trying to work it into a logical, comprehensive whole identifies gaps and leads to new inspiration in fleshing out the world, characters and plot.

3. I develop the high-level plot outline. In my current story, this ended up being about 8000 words. I choose scenes, decide which characters to populate them, high-level conflicts, and how each scene will drive the plot forward. At this point, I’m looking to get my first full view of the complete story arc from beginning to end. I develop arcs for each major character to ensure I’m addressing things from each of their perspectives, and considering the plot through each of their eyes. This process yields tons of fresh insights, new twists to consider, and helps the story really come alive.

4. If this is a brand new story (as opposed to a sequel), I find it useful to write the first few chapters based on the high-level outline. This helps solidify the character voices and the feel for the world and how the story is going to work. I get ‘locked in’ to the story this way. I can usually tell if I’m on the right track now, or if there’s something still fundamentally wrong with the plot, characters, or world.

5. I develop what I call a mid-level outline. I run through the outline again, fleshing out the scenes, clarifying and adding detail. For some of the important scenes, I add sections of dialogue or work out how I’m going to approach the action sequences. This is particularly helpful in planning complex endings.

This is the step I’m on right now. I’ve taken the 8000 word high-level outline and expanded it to about 15,000 words so far. I’ll probably complete the outline at about 20,000 words or so. At that point, I could do another pass and produce even more detail, but the story is really coming alive for me, so I don’t think that will be necessary.

When I begin writing scenes for the first real draft, I keep the outline in mind, but this is where I free-write. The outline is the framework and helps me identify when my free-writing takes me off on new tangents. Sometimes those tangents are awesome – a flash of inspiration that I could not have figured out unless I was in ‘the zone’ writing full scenes. Sometimes they’re a bad idea that takes the story off a cliff. Any time I break the framework, I need to go back and analyze how this change will impact the story. Either it’s brilliant and the rest of the story needs to change as a result, or it’s a false-start that needs to be chopped.

If I decide to keep it, I have to make sure I can still maintain the story integrity. I have to ask: do my plot points and story arcs and character arcs still make sense? Will pacing be right? Will the ending still work? Adjustments often need to be made.

This sometimes seems like a lot of work, but it’s actually a lot less than the alternative. This way I can identify the impacts to the story early on and choose how to address it. Before, I would keep writing, maybe all the way to the end of the story before I realized other components needed to be changed. That would require an entire new draft, which was a lot more re-work and took a lot more time.

Through this blended outline/free-write approach, I’ve dramatically cut down how long it takes to write even a big-fat-epic-fantasy novel like mine.

How do you approach a new novel?

 

And the winner is …..

And the winner is ….

Not you!

What happened? You’ve worked on your craft for tens of thousands, hundreds of hundred thousand words. You’ve gone to workshops, read every blog, every book on craft you can find. By now you know what the pros say and you can teach the writing courses just as well. And yet, the podium still eludes you.

Then there’s Writer X gracing the podium. Her writing isn’t as crisp. Her wrinkles of profound thought aren’t as deep. And she’s much newer at the game. So why was her work chosen over yours?

As co-editor of the Shanghai Steam Anthology, I’ve had to read well crafted and poorly crafted stories. Some writers had great ideas but needed to hone their writing skills. Others wrote prose well enough but the story lacked tension, the story arc was incomplete, the dialogue didn’t work, it lacked theme/focus or the historical homework wasn’t done.

Then there were the stories which survived the first round of cuts. Those which had that extra something. Some would need some revision, others editing while the best ones required no work.

What!!!!!! you exclaim. Some needing revision are in the final round? What about the ones with the well crafted prose that you denied? Why weren’t they chosen for editorial revision?

The answer is simple – besides being decently written, these stories are memorable. Despite their flaws, I was engaged to the end. Every story in the last round evokes an emotional response whether it’s of laughter, amusement, bitter sweetness, feeling defeated, cheering a hero, being horrified, melancholy, elation, and so on. It may be quietly engaging as in a romantic tragedy or a simple rendering of a thought provoking moment.

The emotional response I’m describing is not about liking or disliking a character. It’s about the story itself. Am I left feeling optimistic, laughing, amused by the clever turn of events or am I saddened, horrified, forced to reflect on the human condition? And does that story stay with me long after I’ve read it? Does it have emotional resonance?

The story, like every character in it, has its own voice – its own drama, its own growth, its own ability to draw readers in and not let them go. That voice carries the story’s emotional resonance which is framed by the promise made at its beginning and is concluded or addressed by the end.

We understand that the story arc is an important backbone for a story with a beginning, middle and end which includes challenges, climax and denouement. Characters cleverly doing their thing without purpose or meaning is not enough. How do you want the reader to understand the world you’ve created when the story is done? How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Hopeful? Depressed? Scared to death? Satisfied for running a marathon? Cheering that the good guy beat the bad guy?

Once you understand what emotions you want the reader to experience, your writing voice will be clear and the story’s emotional resonance will reflect that. Emotionally, the reader is compelled to read the story through to its bitter, joyful, triumphant, tragic or thoughtful end. You don’t want them feeling emotionally flat and wondering so what?

 Good writing counts for a lot in submissions for contests, anthologies or publishing. But no matter how well crafted the words are, how strong the plot and characters appear to be, without emotional resonance the story isn’t memorable. It’s the little aha! I get it! or what a ride! feeling a reader experiences that makes it memorable. That aha! may be a good chortle, a reflective moment, celebration of the protagonist’s victory or grumping at a character’s stubbornness. Whatever the aha! is, every reader craves it and every story needs it to be memorable.

 Now when you revise and edit your work or when others critique it for you, ask them: How does the story make you feel?, Does it stay with you after you’ve finished it?, If you had strong feelings about the story, tell me why. If not, what does it need/why does it feel flat to you? These are hard questions to ask and answer but knowing this will take your story to the next level and make it resonate with readers.

Mignon Fogarty: Well-Used Words

A guest post by Mignon Fogarty

It’s a huge thrill for a wordie to come across a particularly well-used word; it’s like a little inside joke shared with the author. It’s not necessary to place these Easter eggs in your writing, but if you can, it’s quite fun for you and a certain segment of your readers.

Take “maudlin” for example. Any of your characters can be maudlin, but it’s a freakin’ home run when a nun is maudlin! The word is derived from Mary Magdalene’s name because in Middle Age art, Magdalene was always portrayed as weeping and downcast. As with so many English words, the spelling morphed over time–from “Magdalene” to “maudlin.”

“Anathema” also has religious origins and is particularly well used to describe something devilish or church-related. Today, anything hated can be anathema, but the word comes from a Greek word used to describe something cursed or devoted to evil. In the 1200s, the Catholic Church had a few different kinds of excommunication, and the harshest–proclaiming someone damned–was called anathematization.

If you write about Medieval times, you may want to use the word “bailiwick.” Today it describes someone’s area of expertise, but in Old English, a bailiwick was something like the bailiff of the village–the overseer.

“Egregious” also has interesting origins; it comes from a root word meaning “flock,” as in a flock of birds. The “e” is a remnant of a prefix that means “out,” so “egregious” means to stand out from the flock, which makes sense when you consider that a disruptive bird would stand out from the flock, just as someone who exhibits egregious behavior would stand out from the crowd. If you can smoothly work “egregious” into a sentence about the behavior of animals (or people) in herds or flocks, it’s a win.

“Galvanize” is related to electricity, “gall” is related to liver bile, “haughty” comes from the French word for “high,” and “inchoate” is related to plow animals. The examples go on and on.

I started being particularly aware of words with interesting origins when I began researching etymology for my 101 WORDS book series. You can develop your own list of words to use in interesting ways by browsing a dictionary or signing up for word-of-the-day lists and jotting down promising words in a notebook or computer file.

Mignon Fogarty is better known as GrammarGirl and her newest book is 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BooksaMillion, Indiebound, Powells)