My recently completed novel manuscript addresses falling in love, second time around love, old people in love, disappointments in love, unconditional love, and steadfastness in love. There’s also a bomb scare, dog antics, and a poetry reading in the story, so don’t think all I did was write characters who spent 350 pages giving one another moony looks. Continue reading “Renew Your Writing Vows in 2015”
Why do I promote the one hour a day plan so strenuously?
The body is a temple, a key to the soul. In fiction, a character’s body can reveal emotion and habits, but this can go awry. Below are seven body functions that can creep into writing in clichéd, ineffective, and colorless ways to weaken your prose.
In Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Laurey and Curly musically list all the don’ts necessary to keep their neighbors in the wide open spaces from “suspecting things” about the cowboy and the farm girl.
“Things” means love, of course.
Person of interest: a person who is believed to be possibly involved in a crime but has not been charged or arrested – www.merriam-webster.com
The above term has been used in law enforcement since 1937, according to Merriam-Webster. I don’t know what—or who—happened in 1937, but more recent examples of “person of interest” are Richard Jewell (innocent), Scott Peterson (not innocent), Andrew Cunanan (also not innocent), and James Caviezel (fictional).
Terrible? That seems harsh, doesn’t it?
Terrible may be harsh, but it got your attention. Snatching a reader’s attention is the goal of an opening, so I chose a title that would do that. Now that I have your attention, let’s examine openings that are weak, clichéd, or otherwise problematic.
First, the list of twelve terrible openings:
- A party
- Waking up
- Driving alone
- Bad news phone call
- Finding a letter/locket/journal
- Sex scene
- Nameless naked guy tied to a chair in an empty warehouse and being tortured and no one can hear him scream.
Already, I hear the protestations. It is true: every opening listed has been done, and successfully. And some of you hate rules. Fine. I give you both of those points. But if you read on, I’ll discuss why these openings are weak and how to think about openings that are stronger.
Weather happens all the time. Every moment of every day, there is weather. It’s boring and it alerts me, the reader, that you are easing into the story. I don’t want easing, I want conflict, thoughtfulness, or drama. If your story is *about* weather, that’s an exception. A tornado story may open with an ominous cloud formation or an ironically clear sky. If you open your story with a line telling me is it a sunny day, because it is a sunny day, well…is that really the most interesting thing about this day in your character’s life? If you want to mention the sunshine because, in about five seconds, the person driving alone (see #4) is about to be hit with sun blindness and cause a 26-vehicle-pileup, mention the blinding sun. It’s not weather, it’s a story starter. Otherwise, if the weather is not a pending tornado or a blinding sun, start elsewhere.
A party or any large gathering can be problematic because of population. If you place the main character into a social setting with lots of other characters, you are throwing the reader into the same situation: lots of names to learn. It is easy to overtax your reader’s memory by introducing a big cast all at once—too much, too soon. “Too many characters” is a common complaint, so give your reader a break. If a party or heavily populated scene is required, make it easy by only introducing characters whose roles in the story are vital. As a reader, I’m more likely to put down a book if I have to flip pages back to figure out if, at the opening scene party, Louanne was the witch in the blue dress, the blonde who spilled the champagne on her skirt, the OCD one who had a stain remover stick in her handbag, etc.
Everyone wakes up. It doesn’t matter if the wake up occurs in the morning, at night, from a hangover, in a strange place, the story begins with a mundane and relatively passive activity. As I have mentioned 55,000 times on this blog, everyone sleeps, gets dressed, and goes to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it. Many new writers begin with waking up because they are confused by the “normal world” concept. Before the land mine of the conflict lands, the daily life of a character should be portrayed. That’s fine. That’s valid and effective. BUT—does the normal world have to be dull? The opening is the introduction to the character: a first impression. A first impression should share significant and telling information. If the first thing I see your character do is wake up and take a shower, all I have learned is that she is not in a coma and she has decent personal hygiene. Instead, open the regular day with an intro that is reveals some aspect of the character. It doesn’t’ have to be dramatic: Gardening (a hobby). Dropping off the grandkids at swim practice (family). Arguing with neighbor (conflict). Daily run (routine). Man crammed uncomfortably inside his daughter’s playhouse for a tea party (nice dad). Discovering daughter and boyfriend making out in basement (overwhelmed mom). Think about your character. Surely he/she deserves a better first impression to the reader than opening his eyes and yawning.
A character who is driving alone may be doing a task that’s more exciting than sleeping, but barely. The problem with driving alone or any other solo activity is the absence of someone to react to, and vice versa. Interaction is more interesting than solo contemplation, and that’s what characters do when they drive: they think, they consider, they plan, they stew. They can’t do much else because they are (supposed to be) focused on operating a vehicle. And besides, if your character is headed someplace important in her car, why not just plunk her in the place, already, and start the scene there? Exception: Driving alone can be interesting if the vehicle is a race car, a rocket, or a regular vehicle that’s about to be involved in a 27-car pileup caused by a rolling fog bank. That’s probably not dull.
Why is dreaming not a good opening? Aren’t dreams fascinating, a window to the soul, an unconscious message from the subconscious? Yes, dreams have meaning and maybe a place in a story, but like driving and sleeping, dreaming is not an active event. Dreaming is passive. The character may be a participant of the dream, but in reality, she is lying there allowing the dream to act, instead of being the actor. Additionally, while the dream itself may be active, the character/s who participate in a dream do so through the filter of the dreamer. A filter puts space between the reader and the character. Dreaming can also come off as a cheap trick. Remember Bobby Ewing in the shower? If the story is about a character with chronic nightmares, the nightmares are a symptom. What else is going on in the character’s life that would lead to nightmares? And waking up to a pounding heart because of a bad dream is still waking up. See #2.
Likewise, waking up to a bad news phone call provides a double whammy of weakness. Why? First, the person is waking up. Second, a phone call is not action. Most literary phone calls require a POV character saying, “Uh huh, uh huh, the body of the museum caretaker I interviewed yesterday was found where again?” while an off screen character gives details the reader never sees or reads. So we have a one-sided conversation, plus the filter problem. You have important information the reader needs to know–the reason for the phone call. You have a character who will act upon that info—the recipient of the phone call. The character will react to the info and provide action. Why throw in a middle man? Why not put the character in the scene already and skip the boring phone call? No matter how exciting, disturbing, or revelatory the information shared may be, the phone call itself is not action. A phone call is one person speaking into a little box. Generally, the reader can’t hear what’s said on the other side, and the most common way to share what’s said on the other side is for the POV character to repeat it. That’s unnatural and, in reality, would be annoying. Imagine yourself as the caller. You share info. The character repeats every line. What is your reaction? “Why are you repeating everything I say?” The answer is: “Because the reader needs to hear it.” That’s how you end up with talking head dialogue.
Writers are told all of the time that conflict is change. What is the catalyst for change in your story? Finding a letter/locket/journal is a common device to throw a curve ball into a character’s life. A device can be useful, but it can also be obvious, or unnatural, and sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. A device can make a reader wonder if the character (and the author) can’t be more clever than to drop a written revelation into the character’s lap. It puts the burden of activity on someone who is not present in the story. A primary character is more interesting if she is active, rather than reactive. A second issue with letters, lockets, journals, and diaries: they’re common. Really common. Soooooo common. Discovering a message of any kind is passive unless the character is seeking it. If your story starts out with a character searching for an item for a reason, that’s action. If Grandma’s diary discovered after the funeral changes the main character’s life, that’s been done. To death. As dead as Grandma.
If you’ve been told your opening starts on page 3, or 13, or 30, your issue is probably backstory. Backstory is the background to the story world, to the character, to the setting—whatever preceded the action that is (supposed to be) happening on the page. Backstory weakens an opening because it sends the chronology backward instead of forward. A story is meant to progress. If the author stops the forward movement for a line or two of backstory, that pauses the progress. A brief and necessary pause is probably not detrimental. If the author inserts a couple of paragraphs of backstory, that may stall the action. A stall is a bigger concern. If the author inserts a page, or more, of backstory, that brings the progression to a dead halt. Look at your opening three pages. Highlight anything that is not happening right now. Everything you highlight stops the story’s progress. Do you see a lot of highlight? Are you making your story stop and go, rather than moving forward?
Isn’t a sex scene action? Yes it is, and with the caveat that an erotica novel may start in bed because that is the genre expectation, many readers would like to get to know the characters a little before they see them nekkid. A sex scene provides the author a unique opportunity to show characters in an intimate, and thereby vulnerable, situation. A reader can learn a lot about the character by watching them have make love. The problem with that? Not every reader wants to see characters have sex, and if you start with a sex scene, you may lose a reader who – once invested – might read or skip or skim a scene that makes them uncomfortable. A second consideration for opening with a sex scene is that, like every other scene, the sex scene needs a purpose. A purpose other than characters getting laid, that is. Something must be learned or revealed, and can that be done effectively if the characters have just introduced? Like sex itself, a sex scene works best if there is foreplay—a building of desire, tension, or difficulties—between the two lovers. That can be better accomplished by moving the sex scene back a bit, and so allows the reader to experience and enjoy the buildup too.
Floating can happen with a scene that opens with a punchy line. It can be dialogue or it can be a thematic statement. There is nothing wrong with this opening if what immediately follows is a person in a place. If the opening scene begins with a line of dialogue, followed by another line of dialogue, and this goes on with no indication of who is talking and where this conversation is taking place, this is floating. Even if the characters are named, they are still floating around in the ether until the author grounds them into a physical place. To avoid floating, offer the setting ASAP. It is not difficult. After the opening line, insert a physical location. That’s it. The characters are now grounded.
A manifesto is defined as “a public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature.” I doubt anyone reading this plans to open a manuscript of fiction with a political statement, but I am using manifesto in a different sense: a declaration by the author that reveals in advance what happens ahead. By reveal, I don’t mean the author explains out the plot in the first paragraph. By reveal, I mean the author tells the reader, through the character’s voice, that what is ahead did this, that, or the other, to the character’s life. This is an old style opening- The events I shall relate herewith occurred in the dark December of my youth – and may have worked then, but not so much now. A manifesto is often a sign of stalling. Rather than jumping into the action, the author eases into it by chatting with the reader for a bit, trying to explain that what’s ahead is really great, once we get there. If you have to persuade me, the reader, that what’s ahead is so great, why am I not reading it instead of being persuaded to read it?
Nameless naked guy tied to a chair in an empty warehouse and being tortured and no one can hear him scream – My pet peeve, for a couple of reasons. Victimizing a nameless person is emotional blackmail. The dude tied to the chair may be Charles Manson, but if someone is going at him with a blow torch and gardening shears, I’m going to sympathize with Charlie, no matter what he’s done in the past. And that’s not fair. As a reader, I don’t like being manipulated. A second reason why this is a terrible opening is the absence of context. Opening a scene with action is great. Opening a scene with action I don’t understand because I don’t know these characters or how they got to this place is the same problem as opening with a sex scene. I’m not invested in these people. We just met. I don’t know who deserves my sympathy or my empathy or my disgust, so I end up feeling sorry for Charles Manson. I don’t want to feel sorry for Charles Manson.
Finally, a problem with #12 that applies to all of the other numbers is this: an opening scene is meant to reflect the rest of the story. If I read a torture or sex scene on page 1, I am going to expect a story with graphic violence or sex. If that’s what’s ahead, the author has done his job with an accurate opening. If not, and the author opening with a dramatic scene as a hook, that’s dangerous territory. Why? What if this is the only scene of violence or sex in the story, and I hate graphic violence or sex? I’m going to close the book, and the author has lost a reader who got turned off by a misleading hook. Or, if the author writes only one graphic scene, as a hook, and I like graphic scenes, I’m going to feel tricked when I read on and the rest of the story is not what I expect.
The opening of your story is the introduction to the story world, but also to the writer’s choice of how to introduce that world. If the opening is mundane, unimaginative, manipulative, confusing, or a cliché, the reader can only surmise the rest of the book will be mundane, unimaginative, manipulative, confusing, or a cliché.
One of my favorite writing quotes is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”
I’m not sure it comes so easily after the first paragraph, but I agree that the opening reflects the rest of the story. Is your opening weak, or does it do justice to the pages ahead?
At the Pennwriters Conference this past weekend, I gave a workshop on a writing challenge called Sprinting. To Sprint, a writer shuts off all distractions and writes without interruption for an hour. The goal is to get down 1,000 new words in an hour.
Sprinting is simple and hardly enough content for a one hour workshop. Finding an hour a day to write, and incorporating it into an otherwise busy life, may not be so simple. Also complicated is how to make the most effective use of a writing hour. Those—finding an hour and using the hour—will make up the content of this mini blog series. Here’s the schedule:
Definition of POLISH from Merriam-Webster online
- : to make (something) smooth and shiny by rubbing it
- : to improve (something) : to make (something) better than it was before
Step 3 – Polish
The third and final step in revising a manuscript in three steps (Revise-Edit-Polish) may not include rubbing, exactly, but the goal of Step 3 – Polish is to produce clean copy. In the publishing industry, “clean copy” means error free.
Ideally, in Step 1 – Revise, you repaired structural weaknesses, plugged holes, built tension, revealed character growth, moved the plot from an engaging beginning to an exciting climax, and provided a satisfying and logical story for your reader.
Ideally, in Step 2 – Edit, you evaluated the narrative sentence by sentence and allowed good grammar and a pleasing style to give the story its own special voice and sound.
Ideally, in Step 3 – Polish, you will go through the manuscript one final time to make sure every plotline is closed, every false suspect is cleared, every character with red hair remains a redhead, and every word is spelled correctly, every i dotted and every t crossed.
Although this post is about the final step in the 3-part revision plan, this does not necessarily mean your story will be ready for submission. Perhaps it will. Perhaps you will run it by a beta reader. Perhaps you will hire an independent editor.
These three steps are to guide you to working on your own. It is my belief that, circumstances permitting, you should treat your MS to these three steps before you send to a beta reader or independent editor, or agent. These three steps will help you get the MS to the best shape YOU, the author, can reach with on your own, with your single set of eyes.
If you work with a critique group and submit weekly or monthly, I think this system will work for chapters and scenes. Before each partial submission of a draft, Revise-Edit-Polish to save your critique partners from reviewing raw or rough material.
You would do this ideally. Remember–this is not the only way to revise. It is a way to revise.
What does the Polish step do?
Each of these three steps has a specific purpose:
Step 1 – Revise is to strength the story as a whole.
Step 2 – Edit is to insure the words are correctly and pleasing put together.
Step 3 – Polish is a final look to judge if all errors and weaknesses are caught and repaired.
Revise looks at the broad landscape of the story. Edit looks at the smaller pieces of scenes and sentences. Polish looks at words—word by word by word.
For Step 3 – Polish, you will want to examine your pages with sharpest eye—at a time when your eyes are pretty tired of it! At this point, you may be suffering from Manuscript Fatigue Syndrome: the inability to “see” the details of your story because you’ve rewritten, tinkered, cut, pasted, and corrected it to the point of mental blindness.
With up to 100,000 words to examine, one by one, mental and visual fatigue are no joke. How can you help yourself see the words with fresh eyes for Step 3 – Polish?
In Step 1 – Revise, I noted that the work could be done on paper or by screen. In this step, changing your vision in a concrete way may help you see it more clearly. Here are some ways to do this:
~ If you have been working online, print out the manuscript and red pencil it.
~ If you have been working on paper, review the manuscript online.
~ Change your physical location: go to a library, coffee shop, your basement, a hotel for the weekend.
~ Change the background color of the manuscript.
~Change the size of the font, or change the font.
~ Read it aloud.
~ On paper, place a ruler below each line to keep your eyes train on one line at a time.
What are you looking for?
A clean and polished manuscript goes beyond finding typos.
As you read with your sharpest eye, look for:
Technical/mechanical errors: typos, omitted words, single/double quotation marks, ellipsis/dash errors, missing punctuation, dialogue tag errors.
Continuity: Unless a change occurs within the story, characters should have the same name, hair color, job title, number of siblings, pets, address, etc. throughout the story.
Redundancies: Each sentence should offer a unique bit of information. Once the information is shared, such as identifying Sgt. Wilkes as your police character’s boss, you do not need to ID Sgt. Wilkes as the boss again. An exception to this is if the character appeared so briefly, you think the reader needs a reminder.
Word Choice: Are verbs as precise and as strong as they can be? Are adjectives employed for a specific purpose, and not because you want your writing to sound pretty?
Repetition: Check for words or phrases in close proximity. If “she made up her mind” in one paragraph, in the next paragraph she might decide, vow, promise, instead of “she made up her mind” again. Also look for individual words used twice in the same sentence or paragraph. Variety is good.
Clarity: Is every sentence clearly written to convey an easily discernible thought? Is the wording smooth, without awkwardness?
Sentence Variety: Six word sentences are very easy. They can do an okay job. After a while they get dull. The sentences’ sounds will be blah. Your head will bob like a duck’s. You will soon want a nap. Please give your sentences some variety.
Likewise: Pausing at the door, she felt in her pocket for the key. Checking down the hall for Zeke, she slipped inside the apartment. Holding her breath, she made sure no one was in the TV room. She tiptoed down the hall, stopping at each open door. She went into the kitchen, pulling the phone off the hook as she went by. She opened the oven, sticking her head inside after reading so many boring sentences.
Transitions: Do paragraphs and scenes segue naturally forward? Do you use transitions—later, meanwhile, after a while, a week later, post-lunch—to jump ahead when necessary?
Grounding: Is it clear in every scene who is where and where is where?
Extraneous words: Are you adding to the word count, but not to the content, by overloading the writing with deadwood? Cut out just, very, somehow, that, was, then, suddenly, and so on. Don’t forget pleonasms: the up in walked up the stairs, and the down in descended down the stairs.
Your writerly habits: Every writer has favorite words, turns of phrase, quirks and style giveaways. This may make your writing unique, but it can also become repetitive with overuse. If you can hear or recognize a habit, that means you are overdoing it.
Can you stop now? Please?
After Revise-Edit-Polish, this is probably the question you’d love to ask, and have answered with a resounding, “Yes!” Well, sorry, the answer is “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Where you go from here depends on you. No matter if you send this manuscript to a beta reader for feedback, a critique group for review, a professional editor for strengthening, or an agent for consideration, revising through these three steps of Revise-Edit-Polish will give you a stronger, tighter, more coherent, and cleaner work.
Because your work is worth it, right?
Definition of REVISE from Merriam-Webster online:
- a : to look over again in order to correct or improve <revise a manuscript>
b British : to study again : review
- a : to make a new, amended, improved, or up-to-date version of <revise a dictionary>
There are as many approaches to revision as there are writers with manuscripts to revise, but the goal is universal: to review a draft with the goal of making it stronger, tighter, and clean. The approach below is a task oriented system of reviewing a manuscript to achieve that goal. It requires three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish.
Why three steps? Can’t you revise in one intense, comprehensive manuscript review?
Of course you can, if that works for you and if you are able to juggle multiple mental tasks at the same time. There is no one correct way to revise.
However, measuring a manuscript’s story power, language use, and effectiveness while simultaneously checking for grammar and correcting typos can be overtaxing. And overwhelming. If you are trying to evaluate too many things at once, it’s easy to become frustrated and to miss problems. You can get mired in the same spot of your manuscript. By the time you move on to the next section, you’ve forgotten the details of what you’ve read before.
What’s the quote about doing one thing well, or a lot of things halfway?
Doing multiple intense passes on your manuscript will require time and focus. This is not a quick-fix approach. You will need to draw upon patience and dedication, but your manuscript is worth it, right?
Revise, Edit, Polish
The following approach employs three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish. If you like acronyms, you can call it the REP system. Ideally, you have a completed draft that needs to be reviewed. To get it into shape for submission or publication, you will read and rework it three times, from beginning to end.
Today’s post will discuss Step #1: REVISE
The first pass is to examine the manuscript as a story. Some writers call this a global review. Others call it reading like a reader. The point of this first pass is, foremost, to make sure the story works. You will read with the goal of finding weaknesses and/or omissions, and make notes on how to repair them.
For the Revision pass, you’ll need to view it as your Internal Storyteller and read without stopping to edit. Turning off your Internal Editor may be difficult, but it is temporary. You can indulge the itch to delete, fix, correct, in Step 2. Your Editor is waiting in the wings, but this is your Storyteller’s crack at the manuscript.
How to do a Revision pass:
A Revision pass will take on the big picture questions:
~ Does the MS have all the necessary parts to insure the plot makes sense?
~ Is there conflict-climax-resolution?
~ Do characters act consistently?
~ Is every scene grounded in a specific place?
~ Does the reader have all necessary background info on place, character, events?
~ Does the plot move forward in a logical way?
~ Do all subplots and secondary storylines support the primary plot?
~ Does every scene have a purpose pertinent to the plot?
~ Does the story make sense?
~ Is the story saying something?
Reviewing for the big picture items means you ignore smaller issues (typos) and mechanics (grammar and style.) Every time you stop to correct a typo or rewrite a sentence, you pull yourself out of the story. Your focus moves out of the world you have created back into the real world. So, ignore the writing. Those typos won’t dissolve on their own. Those sentences will still be poorly constructed or dull tomorrow. That’s the next task. You may have to grit your teeth and sit on your hands at first but, with practice, turning off the Internal Editor is a useful skill.
To Revise, stay in the world of your story. Pretend you are hearing the story and can’t see the errors. Be a Storyteller.
For the Revision pass, first I recommend you read through without making any changes to the manuscript. You can do this on a screen or paper. Keep a notebook or document and record concerns as you go along; use Track Changes to record your questions/concerns in comment bubbles; color highlight parts that clearly need to be reworked.
Read through from beginning to end, noting what you need to note as you go along. Don’t stop to make changes. Read it as a story.
Some questions will be small scale: Do I clear up why she asks about the motel receipt (page 4)? Do I explain how he got this fear of heights (chapter 11)?
Some will be bigger: Is what happened to her when she was 7 traumatic enough to affect her adult decisions? Does his abruptness to his sister make him look like a jerk? Do I need to explain the history of the mill? Does my killer have a valid revenge motivation? Is this detective incompetent because I’ve developed him as hostile and close-minded, or is he bumbling around foolishly because I need to give my amateur sleuth time to sneak around? Are clues glaringly obvious?
Some will be about structure: Is the inciting incident big enough to set up the climax? Is there a constant increase of tension? Does my plot flat line in Act 2? Is the plot too linear? Does this need some umph or humor or a second focus? Do all events happen in a sensible order, or are my scenes bouncing around in time?
After a read-only pass with notes and highlights, go back and make the necessary changes. That question about the motel receipt on page 6? Maybe you resolved it after all on page 229. Your character’s surprising ability to use a welding torch reads like a Hail Mary skill because, oops, you forgot to show earlier that he worked repairing hulls when he was in the Navy.
This making changes part is hefty work. Your Revision read-through may take a couple of days. Your Revision work may take weeks. Nobody said it was fast or easy.
As an independent editor, I read dozens of manuscripts a year. I depend on that first story-only read to let me see what the author is trying to achieve, and how well he/she achieves it. As an editor, I read once for story, viewing it from the Storyteller’s perspective. I focus on the story and only the story. I make notes as I describe above. After that, i go into the manuscript and make revision notes. With my own writing, I use this same process.
To reiterate, Step 1 – Revise is the Storyteller’s turn at the story. Immersing yourself in the story and the story world – without the distraction of technique or technical errors – will help you to see the full landscape of the tale you’ve written. Was it enjoyable to read? Did you get bored? Did it meander? Did it end too quickly? Did it end twice? Did the beginning and the end mirror, contradict, or have nothing to do with one another?
After you’ve read through, made notes, and gone back in to revise, your manuscript is ready for review on the next level: Editing. The Editing pass reviews the manuscript for language—how it is written. That means grammar, style, syntax, and finally, typos. Your Internal Editor will get to come out and do his/her happy dance.
Tune in tomorrow for Step #2 – Editing.