WriteTip: Self-Editing For Writers, Part 3–Content Editing

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting. It is part 2 of a multi-part series. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

Characters, Plot, and Theme

The order in which you review various aspects of craft as you revise is up to you but the one thing this phase has that the writing did not is the advantage of seeing the book as a whole and examining how and if the various parts work well together. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “Every book—at least one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or after your first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.” Things emerge as you write, such as themes which may not have been obvious from the beginning. So now you have the chance to go back through, examine them, and make sure all the elements support and expand the theme in ways that bring out the nuances and add depth.

I generally start with story and structure. So I look at my opening and I ask questions about it as I do.

  1. Does my story really begin here? Or did I start in the wrong place?
  2. Is the opening the right pacing and length or did I draw it out too much? Too much description? Too little dialogue and character? Too little emotion? 
  3. Are the story questions clear?
  4. Is the length of the opening proportional to the rest of the story or is it too elaborate? Too involved?
  5. Is my opening interesting? Is it compelling?
  6. Does my opening have enough action?
  7. Is my opening too flashy such that it effects continuity or does it flow well into what follows?
  8. Is everything clear so readers know who is talking, where they are, and what’s happening?

After the opening, I start reviewing my plots and subplots and looking at their scene structure, flow, and arcs. I look at the action and conflict. Is something happening or is it static? Does every scene take us somewhere further in plot or character or both? Are the stakes clear? Is what my characters want clear? Will readers care? Do the setups lead to payoffs? Are all the questions being answered? Are they being answered at the right time—the best time to aid tension, pace, and comprehension? Is the information I am giving enough to reveal the story to readers as I see it or did I assume things I failed to impart clearly? How can I make it clearer?

Next, I look at Point of View. Is it consistent—no head hopping? Is the chronology clear and understandable? Am I shifting at the right points or should I rethink? What about too many shifts or too few? Is the tone consistent? Is the character with the most at stake always the point of view character for each scene?

I look at pacing, description and setting. Does the story start fast enough or does it drag? Are individual scenes dramatic and do they start and end at the right spot to keep the tension consistent throughout or do they peter off? Does the payoff at the end of each scene and chapter justify the build up? Did I balance showing and telling? Do I describe too much or too little? What details are missing that might be important? Does each setting add to the tension and tone of the scene in a way that makes it stronger or does it fall flat or detract? Does each scene leave readers feeling something important has happened? Do I use all five senses at least once every other page, if not more? Where can I add more visceral descriptive cues?

If any place bogs down, I look for places to trim the fat and tighten, not only for pacing and tension but also clarity. Too much information can overload readers, while too little can leave them confused. The trick is to find the right balance. Does each section function properly in the story or does anything need to be cut or moved to make the story flow better and stronger overall? This requires some cold efficiency and killing your darlings but the book will always be better for it, every time, and making your book the best it can be is essential. There is no room here for favorite scenes and characters that ultimately serve no purpose but author egos. “I liked writing that” is not enough justification to leave it in. Save it and try and use it in another book or story. Everything that stays here must absolutely belong and add something important or it has to go. Now is the time to reorganize scenes and details. If you reveal too much or too little, reveal it in the wrong order, or omitted important things, this is the time to find and fix it. 

Next, I look at characters. Is each major character complete? Are they original or too much of a stereotype? Are they consistent or wishy washy? Are they distinctive or can they be confused with another character? Can anything be added to keep them distinctive? Examine diction and consistency of dialogue and tone—is the character being true to themselves in every word and action they take? Is it believable? What does this character want? What does this character fear? What do they overcome? Does the character grow and change? How? If not, what can be done to fix that. Does each character serve a function in the story or can they be combined or even cut? As editor, I once made a writer cut an entire character and give all her business to another character because she was a minor character who served no real purpose, whereas one of the major characters needed more agency, and so combining them was the best solution. The writer still complains about it to this day, even though she admits it was the best thing for her book. She was later able to go back in and make that character better and more essential to the next book so she could bring her into the story. Ultimately, only keep characters who matter to the outcome of the story. The rest have to go.

Dialogue

I often do a special pass just for dialogue because dialogue is so important. In this, I not only look at character’s diction but the pacing and conciseness of dialogue. I probably trim dialogue and description the most of any parts of any draft. Too much dialogue, too drawn out, not enough action—any of this can be a scene killer and has to go. How can you make the dialogue more dramatic and better paced and less wordy? How can you make even exposition passages feel like they move with action, instead of dragging like info dumps? The trick is to make exposition feel organic and necessary every time by keeping it concise and short. Simple is actually better than complex. Less really is more. Read aloud. Try it out. Do you stumble anywhere? Is it smooth and natural or does it need refining? Are the characters distinctive from each other? Is it clear who is speaking in each case? Characters should sound like individuals, not clones. Listen hard to them and make sure each character has some unique nuanced turns of phrase or styles. Maybe some speak in complete sentences while others talk in spurts and fragments. Some may discuss things directly while others beat around, especially when it comes to emotions. Whatever the case, all dialogue is transactional in nature: it is about an exchange of something useful between two parties, so make sure something happens in every exchange. Is the dialogue accompanied by appropriate actions and descriptive modifiers to show frame of mind, mood, etc.? Most of all, do they all sound like real people?

Ken Rand writes in The Ten Percent Solution: “We don’t just see words when we read. We use other senses. We make mistakes because sometimes the senses we’re using right now to read copy may  be dulled, distracted, or otherwise not functioning to capacity. The solution is to employ different senses in a systematic manner during the editing phase, to catch on the next pass errors that escaped the last pass.” Reading aloud not only employs your ears but your tongue, your eyes, and your mind and heart in ways different from just reading silently. You will hear the way things sound, rather than imagining it. You will hear repetition clearly, for example, because you ears picking it up even as your lips read it time and again makes it really pop out. Hearing how the pacing and flow aid the emotional effect of the prose is also invaluable. It is the best way to give you insight into the reader experience you are offering in time to make fixes. You will hear things that sounded complete in your head but are not—not clear, not complete, not as intended. You will notice sentences that seem to run on or end abruptly. Places where transitions between sentences, paragraphs, or chapters seem awkward or abrupt. And places where characters are speaking but it is unclear who is who. These and such more are things you don’t want to overlook, and reading aloud is a great tool to help you find them.

Let’s take a look at a passage now and see what it looks like between first and second draft.

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After a day or two, I went back through the passage and did some tweaking. Here’s what it looks like after the polish draft.

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You can compare the two and see how I went over the diction and conciseness of voice to tighten or add details as needed to make it richer and clearer, but also improve the pace at the same time. My goal was to write in a voice that implies a certain Midwest country accent without using any dialect or other tricks. I wanted the voice itself to just slip the accent into reader’s minds, but I also want it to be humorous, while still being realistic, gritty while still being believable. This is an example of how you might revise a passage.

Words On The Page

There a few concerns good writers learn to concern themselves with that beginners often leave to their editors or copyeditors. These are things that concern the way words look on the page. Ken Rand writes: “The very shape of letters has a lot to do with whether a reader enjoys or even comprehends the words.” This why choosing fonts is so very important, but additionally, if you have a paragraph with sentences using similar words that appear near each other (in the line above atop or the line below right under) each other, this can confuse readers or cause them to get lost as well. You’ll also want to look for “widows”—solitary words at the end of paragraphs that hang over solo onto the next line. Typesetters and editors will remove these. Your best bet to be sure it’s done the way you want is to find them yourself and see if adding or rearranging words in a sentence can help eliminate them before they ever get there.

I also mentioned earlier in the book that pace and flow of the reading experience come from how pages appear. Too many long descriptive passages with no blank space to breath can make reading difficult and make a book seem slow. Editors and Typesetters may want to break these up just for that purpose. It is in your best interest to make breaks yourself to avoid that, so you wind up with the book exactly as you intended. Looking for this will also aid your search for exposition info dumps and overly long description which you might take out parts of to insert at less busy spots later or just save for another book. Flip through a bound book and notice how the varied flow of pages is pleasing to the eyes as you scan or read, and you’ll get the idea of the subconsciously psychology involved here. It takes time to learn this well, but it is a very worthwhile skill for any author to learn, and allows you to influence parts of the process that tend to move on without you if you don’t know about them. After all, it is your book. You are the one who has to live with it. Wasted time and frustration arguing about recombining paragraphs and other details during editing is something that benefits no one, so the more work you do before then, the better your experience will be.

Knowing When to Stop

Everything we’ve covered so far in this chapter is aimed at one goal: helping you make your manuscript stronger and more professionally polished before passing it on to your editor and publisher. The last tip I want to offer is the answer to a commonly asked question: How do I know when to stop editing?

The best way to know is when you start noticing yourself putting back things you already removed, it’s time to consider stopping and handing it over to someone else. Don’t get stuck in the cycle of endless revision so that you never finish. At some point, you can only make each book as good as you are as a writer at that particular moment. Over time, each book will get better and better, but you do need to learn your limits. And no book will ever be perfect. I usually finish revisions and set the book aside for a day or two before doing another read through aloud. That gives me a break long enough to rest my eyes and brain and come back ready to hear it fresh again and make any final notes as I go through.

When I’ve reached a point that I know it is the best I can make it, then I send it to my agent or editor for the next stage: the editorial process.

For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

WriteTip: Self-Editing For Writers, Part 2-Common Problems, Easy Solutions

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting. It is part 2 of a multi-part series. For Part 1, click here.

Once you get your mind in the game, it’s time to start the read-through and notetaking. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to dig in, so let’s look at some common problems you should look for in every manuscript.

Self-Editing Tips for Common Problems

What I am about to teach you is merely an overview of tips you can use to polish your manuscripts and make them more professional when you send them on to a professional editor. In no way will this information qualify you to not need an editor nor will it be a guaranteed fix for all the issues in a manuscript. I am an editor and I still need an editor for my writing. So will you. Now the right brain is your creative side. To edit well, you must switch brains and use your left brain. This is why editing should not begin until you’ve given yourself some time away to gain back a little fresh perspective or objectivity. It is also why techniques such as reading backwards, last sentence first, or reading aloud are very helpful tools to editing and revision.

Saving your editor time and impressing them with your professionalism isn’t just about making yourself and your book look good. It’s also about maximizing the value you can get from an editor’s additional input. The cleaner the manuscript, the less they have to worry about silly basics and the more they can concentrate on the larger, more complex nuances of your writing. And that will allow them to focus on what really makes the difference between a truly great book and a mediocre one.

The 10% Solution Method

The first technique is from Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution. The basic premise is this: by taking your word count and reducing it by 10 percent, you can and will eliminate a lot of fat to tighten up and add sparkle and confidence to your manuscript. As you develop as a writer, you will come up with lists to check in editing of your most overused words, most misspelled words, etc. These are often key areas for eliminating 10 percent, but here are some others. Use the following table:

Take these words and insert them one by one on your find-replace feature of your word-processing program and highlight the results. Then go through and look at them one by one, asking yourself three questions:

1. Do I keep it as is?
2. Do I change it?
3. Do I delete it?

Then ask yourself if the sentence is accurate, clear, and brief before and after. If it is accurate, clear, and brief before, you likely will choose one and keep it as is. If not, changes are warranted.

For “-ion,” it is the last three syllables of many long words. Here you may just need to consider substitutes. Instead of “intoxication,” does “drunk” work better? For “conflagration,” what about “fire”? For “rationalization,” how about “excuse”? Remember, writing is about communication. The simpler, the clearer it is. If it is the vocabulary of a character, that is one thing. Some characters have different social and educational levels and styles and that should be represented, of course, but in general use of language, the simpler, clearer choice is usually better.

Repeat this until you’ve gone through the entire list. These are generally the most overused and abused words by authors, and there are reasons for them, from passives like “was” and “were” and “felt” to repetitive words like “said,” “that,” and “but” to weak intruders like “saw,” and more. Applying this technique will help you identify many weaker sentences you need to polish and words you need to eliminate to make your prose stronger.

Intruder Words

The next tip is to find and identify intruder words in your manuscript. Intruder words lend a feel of passive writing or structure to the narrative. Use them only when consciously aware of doing so, not as a fallback or style. The more active way to state things is to just flat out state it. Ken Rand writes in The 10% Solution, “When you show the world filtered through a character’s senses, you distance your reader one degree from sensing the story environment themselves.” It’s like reading through an interpreter, which takes you out of immersion to a step removed. The most common intruder words are “knew,” “know,” “felt,” “wondered,” “thought,” “mused,” “debated,” and “saw.”

Example 1: He wondered what kind of food she was cooking as he pushed on the front door and released a hearty aroma.

Better: He pushed on the front door and released a hearty aroma. What kind of food was she cooking?

Example 2: He saw orange lanterns, lights, green umbrellas, and heard the music of violins when he crested the top of the hill.

Better: When he crested the top of the hill, orange lanterns illuminated the twilight. Green umbrellas rose up from cozy tables. All around, the music of violins created a sweet harmony.

Commas and Compound Sentences

Next, let’s make sure we examine comma usage and compound sentences. The best way to do this is using the following mnemonic: FANBOYS, for “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.” When using one of the FANBOYS words to combine thoughts, this forms a compound sentence. Comma placement is commonly seen after the conjunction word. Or neglected. In short, it’s rarely in the right place. The simple rule: Break the sentence at the conjunction. If they form two separate sentences, a comma is mandatory. The comma comes before the conjunction.

Example 1: I went to the party and ate until I was sick. Break it: I went to the party | ate until I was sick

The sentences cannot stand by themselves as two separate sentences. Therefore, a comma is not inserted.

Example 2: I went to Johnny’s and I fell in love at first sight with the puppy on the stoop.

Break it: I went to Johnny’s | I fell in love at first sight with the puppy on the stoop.

Both are single separate sentences and can stand by themselves. Therefore, a comma is required: I went to Johnny’s, and I fell in love at first sight with the puppy on the stoop.

Basic Passive Voice

Passive voice can almost always be identified with “-ing” words, especially when used with a “to be” verb. But “- ing” isn’t the problem. It is the was + “-ing” form of passives that is the problem. Nix the structure, and use the straight past form of “-ed.”

Example:
Don’t eliminate every use of “was”—it is often necessary. Eliminate occurrences of “was” + “-ing.” Unless your entire story is written in present tense.

Basic Gerund Issues

Virtually anytime “-ing” occurs, it is a gerund structure. And these can lead to gerund conflict. One way to check for conflict is a very simple method. Ask yourself, “Can the action be done at the same time?”

Example 1: Smiling, he answered the phone.

Yes, these two actions can take place at the same time. This is an okay structure.

Example 2: Running around the chair, he entered the back lawn.

No, you cannot run around the chair at the same time you enter the back lawn. One action comes before the other. This structure is incorrect.

More examples:
Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.
He was walking across the room with his shoes off.
He walked across the room with his shoes off.

Correct: Having finished the assignment, Jill turned on the TV.
Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

In both examples, the doer of the action must be named correctly in the sentence. Dangling modifiers modify words not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling Modifier Issues

Comma usage is frequently an area where writers struggle. Another common comma issue is dangling modifiers. The action set apart in commas must relate to the subject that is making the action.

Example 1: Having been born with three legs, it is obvious the cat struggled with balance.

In this example, “having been born with three legs” modifies the pronoun “it.” But what it is supposed to modify is “the cat”. Therefore, it needs to be adjusted:

Example 2: Having been born with three legs, the cat struggled with balance.

Example 3: Wanting something warm and cozy, the colorful quilt gave the cat a place to sleep.

The clause before the comma modifies “the quilt,” when the intended recipient is “the cat.” Rearrange the sentence:

Correct: Wanting something cozy, the cat fell asleep in the colorful quilt.

Repetition

As you go through your book, if you didn’t on the read- through, be sure and note words and phrases you repeat a lot, especially on the same page. Make a list and go back and ask yourself the following questions: Is the word really necessary? If it is, what are other ways to say the same thing? Then adjust accordingly. While repetition as a tool for emphasis is valid, unintentional repetition can become annoying and distracting. Nothing stands out to readers more readily than constant repetition. So eliminate as much as you can.

Dialogue Tags

When you have finished the tips I just provided, go back and review your dialogue tags using the tips I offered in my post on How To Use Speech Tags Well.

For more on self-editing, come back next Wednesday. For more WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

WriteTip: Self-Editing For Writers Part 1–Preparing For the Rewrite

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting.

Today we start a new multi-part series on Self-Editing for writers with a look at how to approach rewriting. I am a firm believer that rewriting is where the magic happens. It’s where you take the rough draft you fought through and hone it into a fine tuned, focused, polished piece. It’s where you get the opportunity to finally see your story all laid out and examine its flaws, strengths, and needs in full and set about the work needed to complete it and take it from good to great. To me, the rewriting, is when the fun begins, because it is here things will come together in a way that begins to match the magic vision you’ve held in your mind for so long and struggled to put into words. So rewriting is an important process, an invaluable opportunity, and I consider it something to look forward to, not something to dread.

Getting To The Rewrite

Now before you actually start rewriting, it’s important to let your manuscript breathe. How long you should do this depends upon you, your level of experience, the deadline, what else you have on your plate, etc. But generally, I agree with those who suggest it should be a minimum of six weeks—six weeks during which you work on anything but this novel, clearing your mind of what has been an obsession, focusing on something new and different, and putting this out of your thoughts in order to clear you head and regain some manner of the objectivity required to truly revise well. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “You’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months.” You’re too close to the project, too consumed with, too obsessed to ever see it clearly and objectively the way one must in order to evaluate it properly, so the time has come to take a break, shut it in a drawer, and resist the urge to return to it for a period of time while you regain perspective.

For me, I usually spend the time on short stories or planning and researching my next book. Sometimes I have some polishes to attend to or an anthology to edit. Other times I have blog posts and marketing and other details I’ve postponed and ignored for months to catch up on. Whatever it is, the key is to do something else and only something else for a time so you can free your mind to breathe and let go of the obsession. You also need to get the distance to emotionally let go enough that you can accept the need to revise and make the book better. Stop coddling your baby enough to see that there are things to be learned and taught and refined about her, and that’s okay, it’s all part of life and growth, and prepare yourself mentally to undertake the task with the enthusiasm that it is not a failure but a natural step toward success.

Once you learn to do this, you will find entering the rewrite process to be quite rewarding. You will approach it with renewed focus and energy and the sense of purpose necessary to do it well. King writes: “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else…This is the way it should be, the reason you waited.”

The first step, in fact, before the rewrite actually begins, should be sitting down with the whole manuscript and reading it line by line, pen in hand, making whatever notes occur to you as you go, but not stopping until you’ve been through it in its entirety, beginning to end. For me, I do this on paper. It’s a great way to rest my eyes, which spend way too many hours of each day staring at computer screens or TVs, and it also is a wholly different experience from reading on a machine. For one thing, the whole page unfolds before you, not just a portion, and you can see it as a whole in a fresh way that allows your eyes to take it in differently than they do when you read on a screen. For another, since you’ll undoubtedly spend hours working it over on screens as you rewrite, it gives you a chance to take it to the park, porch, etc. and just work with and read it as readers do, without the demands of the work environment encroaching. This can be important because you are seeking perspective and a fresh look, after all. However you approach it, the trick is to evaluate the whole book before you stop and do any rewrites, because often themes, tone, arcs, etc. need to be considered in their whole before you can see their weaknesses and begin to address them. Chopping it up will disconnect you from how it all flows and falls together—works or doesn’t—and prevent you from seeing the full perspective needed to improve.

Once you’ve made your notes, then is the time to go back to any other notes you might have made as you wrote later chapters or when your mind just had to make a note during the six week hiatus you were supposed to be ignoring it, consider them in light of the fresh reread, and devise an approach to begin your rewrite. Sometimes, there will be particular areas you need to address separately:  character development, particular aspects of craft, particular plots or subplots, theme, etc. and other times you will want to start at the beginning and work your way through right off the bat. Whatever the correct approach is for you to determine, but having a plan is wise, because this is the time for determined, focused effort, not the seat of your pants writing you may have done to finish your first draft. Rewriting is work. Important work. And you have to approach it as such, often inherently different from the initial drafting process.

The human mind works in funny ways. For example, when we read, our eyes skips the bulk of words, just taking in key words and phrases that allow our minds to assemble the most logical sentence. This allows us to move much more quickly over a page than if we stopped at every word. When you read aloud, however, it forces you to slow down and look at every word. This is why when rereading your work you can skip over missing words, missing conjunctions, typos, homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings), and more. Because we wrote the piece, we already love the characters and subconsciously know so much about them that we assume things that may not come across clearly in the text for others and fill in gaps that aren’t on the page mentally, so everything appears okay. This is why we need other eyes to help edit and proof our books. And it’s why we need to carefully approach revision with a mind toward objectivity.

The other part of preparing to rewrite is mental. And Kat Reed, in Revision, suggests a mental checklist that is useful to prepare your mind and attitude for the revision process:

  1. Your first thoughts are not necessarily your best thoughts.

Just today I picked up a project I had struggled with for months and came up with a great new idea that totally helped fix a scene and move it forward, something I had never thought of before. If I had not put it aside, who knows when or if it might have occurred to me. Distance was the perfect aid.

  1. Nothing you write is carved in stone.

Yes, we all love our work. We all are proud of our babies. But face it. No one is perfect. Robert Silverberg told me “The difference between an old pro like me and a new writer is that I still write crap but I know how to identify it.” That is so true. Even then, old pros need editors too because we can always make it better. 

  1. It takes revision to turn a loss into a win.

Rejection sucks. So does some criticism. The best way around both is to ensure the book you send out is the best it can be. Period. No other solution.

  1. Shortstop Criticism—Be your own toughest critic.

Scared of criticism? Dread the bad review? Well, shortstop it by getting there first and giving them as little to criticize as possible. Fix it in revision. Close the gaps, fix the holes, etc. That is your best defense.

  1. If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right.

There’s really nothing more to say by way of explanation, except if you don’t believe this then you are being a special type of fool. 

  1. Extra effort closes the distance between you and your audience.

The extra time of revision is your shot to see what readers see and make sure you are communicating as clearly as possible what you intended. It is the chance to make sure what they receive and what you send out most closely match what you hope for in your mental vision of any book.

  1. Revision means survival. 

Pretty much without revision, few succeed, and without revision few go far. It is a necessary part of the process, and as I said, I look at it as a positive: where the magic happens. It can truly make a good book great. It is not something to dread but to embrace.

For more on self-editing, come back next Wednesday. For more WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

WriteTip: How To Write In Times of Stress-10 Tips To Keep You Going

As writers, we all know that life goes on. And sometimes that means great times of stress and difficulty that challenge our muses and creative drives. Nothing is as stressful as a pandemic. So what do you do when you need to write but just don’t feel like it? Or when your daily life is suddenly filled with new distractions and demands from children stuck home, spouses always around, and so on? Or just when your thoughts are so filled with worries and other concerns that it’s hard to focus?

Here are a few ideas:

1) Aim Small. Whatever your usual expectations, circumstances are different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle for words and your word count suffers. In times like these, 300 good words or 500 are better than none at all. Give yourself a break and celebrate any success. When you surprise yourself and write abundantly, enjoy and celebrate. It’s an accomplishment as always, especially on top of stressful daily concerns.

2. Write What You Feel. Sometimes the distractions make it hard to focus on a work in progress or keep the current story focused in our mind as we write. In such times, it can be helpful to vent some of what clogs our heard—and for most writers, that means writing it out. Don’t be afraid to journal, if you don’t do it normally, and write out what you’re experiencing and feeling. Open a scratch file and go wild. You may find it clears your head and heart enough that you can get back to work.

3. Write Something New. Sometimes with a change in mood or stress, a change of scenery or story will be just the trick to keep us going. If you find yourself flummoxed on your current project, perhaps trying something new will help you not only stay productive but stay sane. Feeling successful and accomplishing your goals is sometimes more important than being stuck on one project at a time, so give yourself leeway to try something more in tune with your mood or focus—some idea you have been wanting to write that maybe has spent more time in your thoughts of late than that WIP. And feel good at what you accomplish.

4. Outline. I get it. You’re a discovery writer and you like to let the story lead your organically. Refining can come in the rewrites. But sometimes, when life is unstable and distracting, it helps to set a path you can follow, and outlines provide exactly that. It doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be as detailed or scarce as you want. Just a few lines or pages. But outlining the next scene or chapter can boost your confidence and give you the focus you need to work through the stress and distractions.

5. Just Let It Flow. Sometimes outliners get distracted too and they struggle to write because the outline just isn’t coming together. Don’t be afraid to write the scene and see where it goes. You don’t even have to write the next scene chronologically in the story. You can skip to some other scene you have a clear vision for and write that, then fill in what comes before later. In times like these, it’s productivity that matters, not form.

6. Writing Is Work—Treat It Like A Job. Some of us write for a hobby. others for a job. And some write full time, while others write when they can. Regardless, the surest way to stay on task is to treat your writing like a second job (or first). That means setting time and a dedicated writing location and protecting them to keep them available when and how you need them. Whatever makes you most productive. Whether you need quiet isolation or the outdoors, a notepad, laptop, desktop, or iPad. Setting up a space, however large or small, and blocking out a time to write is especially important in times when everything and everyone else is constantly clamoring for your attention. So treat it like a job and be professional.

7. Goals Are Good. As much as giving yourself a break is necessary during times of crisis, sometimes pushing yourself can be the best plan. Don’t be afraid to set word goals, even if they vary from your usual output, and force yourself to write to them. If you never set word goals, like me, then now may be the time to try. Having to meet a goal is a great motivation to push you onward. And don’t worry, even if some of the words wind up being useless or cut, it’s writing them that counts.

8. Write With A Friend. Okay, social distancing makes it hard, but turning on Facetime or Skype may be useful as a way to have encouragement, even accountability when you’re struggling to write. For me, there’s nothing like being in a room of people busy writing to push me to do the same. Even if it’s just you and a friend, a writing buddy can be a great support to help you keep going through stress.

9. Change Your Routine. Even at the best of times, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut, but during times of stress and crises, that can be all the more true. So sometimes you need to shake things up, break out of the normal routine and patterns, and try something new. From writing in a new location or at a different time of day to switching stories to outlining instead of pantsing, to changing music, any number of things to shake up your routine might be just the change you need to find inspiration or shake the doldrums and get some words pouring out. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

10. Use Prompts. Some people love writing prompts, some hate them. Others just don’t need them at all. But sometimes writing to prompts can be really helpful. Prompts can be everything from a short concept to a photograph or painting, a list of key words, or even a line of dialogue or description. Whatever works for you and “prompts” you onward is fine. Sometimes just a little inspiration goes a long way.

So there you have it, ten ideas on how to keep writing even through a pandemic or crisis. What works for you? What tips can you offer to help others like yourselves? We’d love to hear from you in comments.

For more writing tips like this post, check out my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction. You can find it on Amazon here or download it here.

WriteTip: Making That Climax Count—Endings

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here. For part two, Middles, click here.

Endings—The Climax

A satisfying climax comes from one thing: Protagonist confronting Antagonist, preferably face to face, and winning. What they win and how depends on the stakes and the goal, of course, but getting the girl, defeating the evil empire, getting the job, stopping the takeover, etc. are all valid and potentially satisfying wins for us. Make them count but give us the satisfaction of watching the win. That’s what all the pacing and suspense has been all about: getting us to this moment. So make sure the moment counts and is emotionally and dramatically rewarding for us. This does not mean every story must have a happy ending but it explains why many often do.

The climax needs to be played out dramatically. Don’t let it happen off screen. We need to witness it. It needs to be the ultimate dramatic conflict that unfolds before us as a scene. Make sure you plan accordingly and write it well. Anything less will be a letdown from all the anticipation you have created. How would you have felt if Luke never faced off with Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars? If Frodo had never destroyed the ring in The Lord of The Rings? Or if Harry Potter had not confronted Voldemort? I imagine your feelings about any of these stories would be very different. Would you feel satisfied? Seeing the protagonist overcome their imperfections and obstacles and win is a bit part of the satisfaction of good storytelling. And you just don’t get the same affect if you tell us how it ended rather than showing us by letting it play out as overt drama. Watching the confrontation is the payoff readers have been waiting for so give it to them.

In preparing to write your climax, it is important to revisit the earlier story and make sure you have set it up correctly and put all the necessary pieces in place needed to make it feel satisfying and complete. Go back and look at your set up for major reveals. When, where, and how do you ask what questions? Is there enough foreshadowing? Note areas that need work and potential revisions you can make during editing. Don’t stop and do it now. That will interrupt your writing pace. But make sure you correct course in what you write ‘til the end and note what you can go back and fix later to make it better and where to do so. Are your three acts clear in each plot line and arc? Do the characters show growth and change? Double check to see you are on track and look at how you can improve things for better pacing and suspense in your book both going forward and later in editing.

In addition to looking at the questions, foreshadowing, plot arcs, and character arcs, don’t forget to also consider emotional arcs. Because good endings satisfy don’t just wrap up the pieces logically and neatly on the outside, they also satisfy our inner selves: our emotions. Donald Maass writes in Writing The Breakout Novel: “Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed; that is, because the author has written it in a hurry due to fatigue or due to a looming deadline, perhaps both. Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.” The secret, Maass suggests, is to allow your protagonist the possibility of failure until the very end; maintaining the possibility that he or she can fail. He goes on to say “construct the plot so that its conflicts, inner and outer, all converge at the same time and place…A great storyteller leaves us in suspense right up to the final moments. Success is never sure; in fact, failure seems the far more likely result.” The satisfaction is in the protagonist rising to the moment and somehow overcoming the odds to succeed. Without that, victory is hollow, the ending emotionally unsatisfying and lacking in depth.

In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends,  Kress suggests four things good climaxes must accomplish:

  1. Satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
  2. Deliver emotion. Readers should feel what the characters feel. If characters feel nothing, the story has not ended yet.
  3. Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. As discussed above, it’s not just any emotion but emotional fulfillment readers are seeking, and that means we need to have been conflicted and unsure until the very end how it might go; if the protagonist can possibly succeed.
  4. The climax must be logical to your plot and story. This last one may seem obvious but we’ve all encountered those endings that were meant to be surprises and twists but seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving us frustrated and feeling unfulfilled. Kress says, “the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that proceeded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” A satisfying climax is intimately tied to satisfying character arcs—characters we care about, root for, and want to see grow into better people. A climax must not be coincidence either. It must pretty much be inevitable, even if we doubt it will happen right until the end. Kress suggests asking yourself: “If the protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?” The answer must be “No” if your ending is to be convincing. If it could happen that way for anyone, your ending will fail. 

Who else but Luke Skywalker could have used the Force to visualize the exact target and destroyed the Death Star? Who else but Frodo could destroy the ring? I can’t imagine those endings coming out any other way, can you? And the same should be true of your climax. Ultimately, the whole story is like an arrow pointing to a specific climax and how you write it ensures that reader’s expectations emotionally and mentally follow the arrow to the exact place you lead them. That’s the only way you can ensure they’ll be satisfied with your climax.

Denouement

Everything after the Climax is called the Denouement—the wrap up of the story. In most cases, the denouement is fairly short and concise, providing confirmation of closure for the characters and plot by revealing their emotional and physical fates after the climax. This is especially true for any characters not involved in the climactic scene. The denouement should give readers just enough information about the characters that they feel the story is really over and satisfy reader curiosity. So the denouement is the place to wrap up any pesky unanswered questions still hanging from earlier in a book. All except the few left over to point us to the sequel, that is (if there is one). Readers don’t want to be left hanging. They don’t want to decide for themselves, either. Readers want to know what happens definitively to the characters they’ve cared enough about to stick with the story, so make decisions and give it to them.

The general rule is, according to Kress, “the more subtle and low-key the climax in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.” Don’t drag it out and leach all emotion from the climax. Get it done and keep it short so it doesn’t seem too anticlimactic. The other key is to dramatize. Show what happens to your characters in action, don’t just tell us. But keep it low-key enough that it doesn’t detract from the power of the climax.

To demonstrate, let’s look at the denouements from two of the stories we looked at in the beginning of this chapter. First, The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks:

Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I 
find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten
anniversary.

It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The 
preparations had dominated my thoughts for so long and
I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel
that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone 
with whom I’ve grown very comfortable. Yet in the wake
of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now
have the answer to the question that I’d been ponder- ing when I first came out here.

Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.

Remember the universal questions asked right at the opening: “Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?” Here we see that the character has found the answer he sought. We’ve seen it dramatized through events in the story and particularly the climax, but the denouement just serves to confirm the character’s recognition that he gets it now clearly. He’s found the answer.

What about Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? It ends as follows:

In the kitchen, we made hot chocolate, stared over the
rims of our mugs at each other as the radio in the 
living room updated us on the weather.

The snow, the announcer told us, was part of the first
major storm system to hit Massachusetts this winter. 
By the time we woke in the morning, he promised, 
twelve to sixteen inches would have fallen.

“Real snow,” Angie said. “Who would’ve thought?”

“It’s about time.”

The weather report over, the announcer was updating 
the condition of Reverend Edward Brewer. 

“How long you think he can hold on?” Angie said.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

We sipped from our mugs as the announcer reported the mayor’s call for

more stringent handgun laws, the governor’s call for 
tougher enforcement of restraining orders. So another Eddie Brewer wouldn’t walk into the wrong convenience store at the wrong time. So another Laura Stiles could
break up with her abusive boyfriend without fear of 
death. So the James Faheys of the world would stop in-stilling us with terror.

So our city would one day be as safe as Eden before 
the fall, our lives insulated from the hurtful and the
random.

“Let’s go in the living room,” Angie said, “and turn 
the radio off.”

She reached out and I took her hand in the dark kit-  chen as the snow painted my window in soft specks of 
white, followed her down the hall toward the living 
room.

Eddie Brewer’s condition hadn’t changed. He was still in a coma.

The city, the announcer said, waited. The city, the 
announcer assured us, was holding its breath.

Progress, Lehane implies, may not change the past, but it bodes well for the future. There is hope. There is a sense of movement in a positive direction. And there is a sense of renewed safety and reassurance that all will be well. For a book that started with the uncertainty and wistfulness of the random shooting of an old classmate, that makes for a pretty decent denouement if you ask me.

Stay Home and Read: FREE Books

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Enjoy and stay safe and well!

WriteTip: How To Navigate and Survive Those Stubborn Middles

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here.

Middles

The middle of your book makes up its largest section: Act Two. It is half the book in length generally. This is often the section where writers struggle to find focus and feel bogged down. It helps if you approach your middle (Act Two) using the Syd Field paradigm we discussed in Chapter 2 on Three Act Structure, considering it two parts of a whole, divided by a Mid-Point. Everything after the Plot Point I turning point of Act One forms an Ascending arc that rises toward the Mid-Point. Everything after the Mid-Point forms a Descending arc that descends toward the climax. On a chart, it looks something like this:

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The arcs represent the curve of the action, emotion and character development, which rise in the first half toward the Mid-Point and then descend after to the Climax. In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Nancy Kress writes: “The middle of a story develop’s the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing incidents that increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax.”

In the first half of Act One, it is very much a journey of discovery as the character experiences Plot Point I—a Call To Action—and responds, trying to rise above his or her weakness, overcome obstacles, and gather the clues or complete the steps necessary to be ready to face the Antagonist. The Mid-Point, as we will discuss in a moment, is the point where the Character has a revelation that changes him or her in a way that redefines the journey and sends him on a descending arc toward the final confrontation—possessed of more certainty about where she must go and what she must do and more confidence to do it. This is why the Mid-Point is so important. Although it is not always an overtly dramatic moment, it must always be an internally dramatic one.

The Mid-Point

As we discussed in my post on Three Act Structure, the Mid-Point is a key turning point where the drama goes from Ascending to Descending. Something happens that twists the story a bit, either personal revelation for your protagonist or reveal or event that changes direction and pushes him or her forward into the second half of Act Two on their drive toward the final confrontation. Although the Turning Points at the ends of Act One and Act Two tend to be larger dramatically, this event is still a significant moment. It’s the scene where the protagonist and readers stop to take stock of how far they’ve come and put together many of the pieces further revealing the map they must follow going forward.

For authors, this is the same opportunity. A chance to look back at what you’ve done so far and regroup. You’ve established your setting and significant characters. You’ve set out your arcs and written one and half acts. You’ve described many key things that are recurring themes, settings, and items throughout the story. Ask yourself what you’re missing? Did you forget anything? Is anything confusing or unclear? Is anything feeling incomplete? What do you need to do to proceed on with confidence? Then take the time to tweak a bit and revisit or at least make appropriate notes in these places before continuing, so that you can revisit them later.

One of the common occurrences during a Mid-Point that is helpful to remember is a shift in driving motivation for your protagonist. The character has changed over the course of what you’ve written so far in several ways (or should). At this point, he or she will consider all that’s happened and reevaluate the why and how of the rest of the journey. The event, reveal, or revelation that serves as your Mid-Point is a great spot for them to solidify motivation, even revise it. For now they see things more clearly, they have more pieces to the puzzle, and they can reevaluate their chosen course and make corrections. Here’s where they go from an insecure, but determined person forced to embark on a heroic quest to a more confident, deliberate acting hero. Their growth journey is not over but they are much more sure of themselves, what they are doing, and why. And they have a much clearer sight of the endgame and the stakes as well. This should make them stronger in determination, vision, and even confidence, even if they and we still have doubts about whether they can succeed in reaching their goal. From the Mid-Point on, the protagonist moves with a new drive forward, even as the antagonist becomes more threatened and desperate in efforts to thwart the hero/heroine. 

One of the best ways to work out the next phase is to examine the character and how they’ve changed so far. What has led to the changes and have they and we recognized actual change in attitude, approach, confidence, etc.? If not, perhaps work on tweaks that slowly reveal the change or use the Mid-Point for a big scene where the change is made manifest and we all realize it. Go back and look at the key scenes that set up that change and then consider where they need to be at the end of the story and imagine scenes you will need to complete the arc and get them there.

You can do the same with every plot and subplot in the story, revisiting key moments for each and planning the next steps needed to carry them to the natural conclusion. And by natural conclusion I don’t mean whatever comes. I mean what you envision as the best ending for the story. If you weren’t sure before, you should have a better idea what this is by now. Go back and look at your Three Act Structure outline of your ending. Does the ending you envision still look like what you envisioned at the beginning or does it need tweaks? Remember, in Chapter 2, I said your Outline was just a guideline and could change. This is a good point to reevaluate and restate or revise your goals so you know where you’re headed; what you’re working for.

It is also important to examine the Antagonist and any main supporting characters the same way. How have they changed? What led them there and where are they going the rest of the story? Having in your mind a clear sense of what is going on with your story and characters is key to feeling unstuck and prepared to write your second  half. Mid-Points can often be points where a writer feels stuck and confused about where to go next. So thinking through all these key aspects is a great exercise for escaping that trap and being renewed in vision and confidence to continue on with a sense of direction.

What clues and key questions were asked and answered that provided the suspense and plot twists so far? Which are still unanswered that compel you and readers forward? And how will you answer them and in what order? Do you need to rethink any of them? Do you need to add or subtract any? 

Take our earlier example of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has now rescued the princess with Han and finds himself trapped in the Death Star Detention block with his companions, fighting against incredible odds. They must find or make a way out and get back to their ship. And then hope Ben Kenobi has disabled the tractor beam. From this point on, Act Two becomes a chase with Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke separately fighting their way back toward the Millennium Falcon to escape, while C3PO and R2D2 do their best to lend whatever aid they can and Kenobi reaches and disables the tractor beam then faces a confrontation of his own.

Looking at this famous story it is easy to identify a lot of key moments: from R2D2 revealing Leia’s message to Luke finding Ben to meeting Han to arrival at the Death Star which all led up to where they are now. Their goal remains clear: to get the plans and the princess back to the Rebel Alliance. And Luke has also learned many skills of the Jedi and how to fight and has gained confidence as a leader and hero that he never had in the beginning. He’s never embarked on such an important and dangerous quest before and he is actually pulling it off. He moves forward with a sense of drive and direction stronger than he had before. This is what good Mid-Points should do in a story.

Getting Through and Staying Unstuck

Middles are places a lot of writers get stuck. I used to find this a problem, until I started focusing on the throughline—a film industry term for the main plotline, the one that focuses on what happens between the protagonist and antagonist in the story. Since the middle is the core journey wherein the protagonist and antagonist prepare to confront each other and fight out their opposing goals, keeping this in focus can give your middle a sense of direction. Everything that happens should feed this storyline taking plot and characters toward that ultimate confrontation. In the first half, on the ascending arc, the focus is on preparing the character to know how to confront the antagonist and believe he or she is capable to do so. The second half, the descending arc, focuses on final preparations and moving directly and determinedly toward that final showdown as all the necessary pieces are put in place and final preparations taken. If you keep these two goals in focus, it should help shape your middle and allow you push through any uncertainty that blocks your writing.

Additional space in the middle is made up of the various subplots and the scenes required in their arcs. But again, every scene must serve character or plot growth. Every single scene. So before you write a scene, figure out what it accomplishes toward the throughline and the character growth necessary to get the protagonist and antagonist to that final confrontation. Knowing that will help you write the scene well and also give you a sense of its belonging in the story. If you have a scene you can’t answer this question about, don’t write it. It probably doesn’t belong yet, though it may be relevant later. You may just be trying to put it in the wrong spot.

Ultimately, if you are blocked, the problem is always internal, not external. Think of it like your character’s journey. You have flaws and obstacles to overcome. So to get past it, you should ask yourself some questions about why you are stuck. Is it fear—fear of failure, fear of success? Is the scene not a good fit for the advancement of plot or character at this point in the story? Have you answered all the questions in your story that led to this scene or is something missing? Make a list of the next few scenes you envision needing to advance your story and then consider whether they are in the right order or need to be adjusted. Does the present scene need to shift within that rough outline? That could also be why you are stuck. Your mind may know subconsciously you are not ready to write the scene you sat down to write and you need to go elsewhere first before you can make it work. Another trick is to think through the plots and subplots and ask to which the current scene contributes. Perhaps you have not revisited a certain plotline for a while and need to take a detour there before you can continue with the story or perhaps a certain scene can contribute to the advancement of multiple plot or character arcs and writing it that way will free up your mind so you can get to work.

Whatever the answer to these questions, the best approach is to always think in terms of the short term, not the overall when sitting down to write. Don’t think about sitting down to write the whole story but the scene at hand. Putting the rest of the task out of mind allows clarity of focus and single minded attention on the scene at hand, which can unclog any blockage or confusion or at least help reveal answers to the questions that are causing uncertainty. It also can be helpful to set word count goals and mini deadlines for yourself. Most professional writers write whether they feel like it or not and are prepared to completely toss aside a day’s output if warranted. They know that the act of writing is like exercise and doing it every day is key to progress, even if the usefulness of the output isn’t as equal some days as others. Often the very act of writing can get you over the hump and clear your thoughts, allowing you to regain focus. Sitting and stressing over a blank mind is not the helpful way. The only way to get more story is to write. Sometimes a trigger helps, and can be provided by reading another novel as your work. Something in the subgenre you are writing perhaps or something so different it completely takes your mind in different directions. The goal is to unclog your mind and regain clarity and focus. Whatever route works best to get you there is a good route to take.

Some writers use rewards to spur them to write, disciplining themselves to deny the rewards when they don’t reach word count or page number goals. Some writers research to break free of the fog, finding it stimulates new ways of thinking and various ideas that can open the mind and free it to write. Many find that discipline is key. For me, when discipline in one area drops, I find it bleeds into others. If I get lazy with exercise, I get lazy with writing, diet, bill paying, and so much more. So having focus in one area affects the others and it is key to my writing therefore to maintain a lifestyle of discipline in many areas. Certainly taking breaks to walk my dogs or exercise is a very good way to unblock by getting my mind on other things and pondering the scene and the questions I need to answer to be able to write. It will be different for every writer, so until you find the best method for you, experimentation may be necessary. But all of this is part of finding the way to write that works best for you.

Whatever you wind up doing, it may also help to have some idea of the climax you are working toward to write the middle that leads there. This is why the structural outlines I suggested in Chapter 2 can be good road maps to help you write. After all, knowing the goal and the destination is often the best way to sort out how to get there. And in fulfilling the promise of a satisfying climax, it is helpful to know where you’re going so you can set it up properly with foreshadowing, character growth, plot twists, clues, and the various pieces it will take for everything to fall in place that allow the climax to satisfy us both mentally and emotionally.

Next week, in Part 3, we will consider the Ending of your story—especially the Climax.

WriteTip: Beginning Well—How To Start Your Story

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of FictionChapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

 

“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and 
grandmothers of today were little boys and little 
girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left 
their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the 
clearing among the big trees, and they never saw the 
little house again.” (Little House on The Prairie by 
Laura Ingalls Wilder)

As you write your novel, there are three areas you’ll need to pay particularly close attention to: the Beginning—particularly the first two scenes, the Middle—and particularly the Mid-Point, and the End—particularly the Climax. This chapter will examine them each in turn. All three will work together in a great novel.

Nancy Kress writes in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: “By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness.” So let’s start at the beginning as you consider writing your novel. What makes a great opening?

Beginning

The cliché of “A long time ago,” actually wasn’t cliché when Laura Ingalls Wilder used it long ago in her now classic tome. For us, it’s a phrase we must mostly avoid. To open our stories, we’ll have to reach deeper, try a little harder. Some stories just lend themselves to strong, dynamic openings: the murder mystery that opens with a murder, the police procedural that opens with a chase, the science fiction or epic fantasy novel that opens with a battle, the romance that opens with the protagonist catching their lover having an affair. These are all inherently dramatic openings, with lots of built in conflict, character development, and emotional resonance as well as action. But not every story brings such an easy opening directly to mind. Sometimes, writers have to work a little harder to craft just the right opening.

There are two key points from earlier chapters we must revisit here: the idea of questions asked and answered—the answers stretched out for pacing over long or short stretches depending, and the promise inherent in the author-reader contract—the promise to deliver on a premise in a satisfying way. Both these things must be established in any good beginning. Kress writes: “In your first scene, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that by focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.” So to start, your opening should give readers a person to focus on. Usually this is the protagonist.

In his wonderful sequel to The Notebook, titled The Wedding, Nicholas Sparks manages to open with his protagonist out front and the story questions asked in the first two sentences: 

“Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundar- ies of our lives?

It is mid-October 2003, and I ponder these questions 
as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch 
light. Jane, my wife, is sleeping upstairs, and she 
didn’t stir when I slipped out of bed. It is late, 
midnight has come and gone, and there’s a crispness
in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I’m wearing a heavy cotton robe,and though I imagined it would be thick enough to keep the chill at bay, I 
notice that my hands are trembling before I put them 
in my pockets.

Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a 
charcoal canvas. I see Orion and Pleiades, Ursa Major,
and Corona Borealis, and think I should be inspired
by the realization that I’m not only looking at the 
stars, but staring into the past as well. Constella-  tions shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and
I wait for something to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life’s mysteries.

But there is nothing.

With those words, he establishes the central journey of the protagonist: a search for meaning, a desire to be better man, and an uncertainty if it is possible. The stars and the cold act as physical symbols of his uncertain thoughts and emotions, reminding us as they do him of his state of mind. The mention of his wife tells us the focus of his desire to grow: his wife and marriage and also introduces another key character for the journey we are about to embark on. It may not be as action packed an opening as a space battle, police chase, or murder, but the search for meaning and hope there is more to life inherent in the questions the protagonist is asking are universal themes all readers can relate to, questions that call to mind similar journeys we’ve all made, and the setting of pondering such things while a spouse sleeps and we watch the stars is also familiar. The whole thing, simple as it is, lacking in action though it may be, nonetheless evokes familiarity that connects us with the protagonist as he seeks universal truths we seek ourselves. And that makes this a powerful opening.

Kress writes: “Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings.” And so your opening must connect us with a character we will want to know better, want to follow through a story; one who asks the kinds of questions that peak and hold our interest and make us read on. Such questions bring with them implied conflict—potential or existing—that will need to be faced to resolve the question. Again, there’s overt dramatic conflict and there’s also conflict like we see in The Wedding, which involves a man wondering if he is the best he can be and if he can find renewed satisfaction in his marriage and life. No matter what type of conflict lies at the heart of your story, it must be hinted at in the beginning, even though it won’t be developed until later, because the hint of that conflict is a hook that catches readers and keeps them reading.

Specificity encompasses the specific details you use to set the scene and character as well as mood and tone in your opening. The right details give you credibility. They anchor your story in concrete reality, distinguish your opening from others that may be similar, and convince readers you know what you’re talking about. The wrong details may lose readers and ruin your credibility right off the bat. Again per Kress, credible details in credible prose convince readers to trust that the author has something to say and knows what they are doing. The sense of trust enables readers to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, believing the journey will be worth their time and take them somewhere interesting.

Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:

  1. Diction: Know the meaning of words and use them well and correctly, avoiding clichés, and establishing the character’s voice, not the author’s clearly and commandingly. If your character would say it—even a cliché—then it belongs, but make sure it is in character and has a point. No words in credible prose are wasted.
  2. Economy: “Credible prose,” Kress writes, “uses only as many words as it needs to create its effects. It doesn’t sprawl.” Credible pose is concise, with well-chosen words and phrases. It is not verbose. Repetition is only used when it is needed to create a powerful effect—a mood, an atmosphere, or a state of mind. It is precise and to the point. Why should your reader be forced to read twice as many words as you actually needed to tell your story? Keeping credibility means not wasting words.
  3. Good Sentence Construction: Awkward sentences never appear in credible prose. Your sentences may vary from simple to compound, long to short, but every one of them is smooth, unambiguous, and purposeful, moving forward story, character, plot, or theme with every word.
  4. Variety: Good sentence construction goes hand-in-hand with sentences of varied lengths. Short sentences can add punch and drama when following longer ones. And longer sentences after short ones will garner heightened attention from readers, who trust that every word counts.
  5. Spare Adverbs and Adjectives: Credible prose is not overflowing with unnecessary words like needless adverbs and adjectives. Excess modifiers are the work of amateurs. Strong verbs and nouns are the mark of pros. 
  6. Tone: The tone of credible prose is never self-indulgent always focusing reader’s attention on the story, not the writer. It resists the temptation to over write, offer needless asides, showy vocabulary, and over punctuation. The writing is straight forward and the words shine, not the author or his devices.

So how does all this fit together? Let’s look at a couple more examples of strong openings. Here’s the opening from Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand:

Three days ago, on the first official night of winter 
a guy I grew up with, Eddie Brewer, was one of four 
people shot in a convenience story. Robbery was not a motive. The shooter, Jeff Fahey, had recently broken 
up with his girlfriend, Laura Stiles, who was a cash- ier on the four-to-twelve shift. At eleven fifteen, as
Eddie Brewer filled a Styrofoam cup with ice and 
Sprite, Jeff Fahey walked through the door and shot 
Laura Stiles once in the face and twice through the 
heart.

Then he shot Eddie Brewer once in the head and walked down the frozen foods aisle and found an elderly Viet-namese couple huddling in the dairy section. Two bul- lets for each of them, and James Fahey decided his 
work was complete.

Darkness, Take My Hand is a noir detective novel set in Boston. Now let’s go to Bend, Oregon and this opening from Frisky Business by Tawna Fenske:

Either Marley Cartman had stepped in dog droppings, 
or the makers of her new lotion had a weird concept ofsweet seduction.

She dragged the toe of her Jimmy Choo peep-toe across the floor of the Humane Society lobby, thinking it was
absurd she’d dressed this nicely to drop paperwork at a business with a goat pen in the foyer.

One detective noir, one romantic comedy, two very different openings, but both excellent examples of the concepts Kress suggested. Lehane starts his story with a darkness and tragedy, that has a sad, wistful tone, while Fenske’s opening is quirky and comedic, much like the novel that follows. The Lehane novel centers on violence as Boston detectives Gennaro and McKenzie try to protect a local kid from the Mafia, while Fenske’s is about romance set around a wildlife sanctuary. Both openings establish character voice, are short on adjectives and adverbs and long on sentences of varied lengths, while also establishing setting and tone with economic prose. They are memorable and powerful and draw us in immediately. This is what your novel’s opening should accomplish as well.

For readers—and this includes agents and editors—the opening scene or two are all you have to convince them your novel is for them: worth their time and competently written by an author who has something to say and the credibility to say it. If you cannot convince them in the first two scenes, most will put down your novel and walk away. Some won’t make it past the first page, to be honest. And the risk is that they may decide never to pick up another book by you again. This is the importance of strong openings. This is why beginnings matter. Find an opening scene that accomplishes all of these things and follow it with a scene that opens up the character and world a bit more, letting us in on who they are, where we are, and what the problem and central question will be, and you will have our hearts and minds for the next few days or week it takes to read your story. But, of course, then you must deliver on the promise of your strong opening. And that’s where the Middle comes in, which we’ll discuss next week.

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 3

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part of a multipart series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.

 

Science and Industrial Development

The battery was a lithium thionyl chloride non-rechar-geable. I figured that out from some subtle clues: the
shape of the connection points, the thickness of the 
insulation, and the fact that it had “LiSOCl2 
NON-RCHRG” written on it. (The Martian, Andy Weir)

The planet’s famous red colour is from iron oxide coat-ing everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a 
desert so old it’s literally rusting. (The Martian, 
Andy Weir)

Another key area of world building is always science and industry. But in science fiction, the futuristic and scientific aspects of this take on special importance and significance for both narrative plausibility and practical reasons—science and development are key elements readers expect. Science Fiction readers love cool tech and science that makes sense or even the hint of such. Even if it is not real, if you make it sound plausible, they will often find this fascinating and engaging. 

What kind of transportation methods exist? Horses and wagons or buggies? Cars and trucks? Planes or space ships? Hovercraft? Each type of transportation requires the industrial and scientific development to make them possible. Given we barely have anything of the sort ourselves, a lot of thought will need to go into these aspects. Where do they get the fuel? How did they devise it? What materials are starships made of and their various parts? Do they have laser or projectile weapons? What kind of defensive armaments do people and ships have and what are they made of? Are they physical or digital? Etc. 

Then there are questions of military? What type of military do they have—formal or informal? Private or government? Do they have armor? What type? What is the structure and ranking system? Where are the bases and training facilities? How do they recruit—volunteers or conscription? Do they use animals or vehicles or both? What kinds of duties and missions are they called upon to undertake usually? What is their history? What is their relationship with larger society—respected or hated? Feared or loved? Etc.

Technological dependence also says a lot about a culture and affects it in many ways and has many meanings. How advanced are they? How did they get there? If there is tech and science, there must be engineers and scientist. How did they develop these abilities and create or acquire the tools required to perform the tasks? Do they make them themselves or trade for them? How do various cultural approaches differ in performing, understanding, and approaching various tasks? Here’s an aspect where time frame, as mentioned earlier, plays a key role. If they are a far advanced society, time frame matters. For humans especially, believable time must have passed for certain technologies to be possible. And again some require sciences and engineering feats we have yet to develop so time must be allowed for those to occur as well. For alien cultures, it is possible to have societies which are advanced over our own, but again, they must have science and tech and engineering knowledge and skills that they acquired earlier which surpasses our own. Not all of this always has to be explained in detail but the writer should think it through and be full aware of the implications of it and write the story accordingly so it adds credence to the world building for readers.

Are there robots or androids? Are human cyborgs or modified humans part of it? What about animals? Are there hybrids? Is there nanotechnology? What is the state of computers and media? Is there virtual reality? What problems from our own world and times have been solved to make such things possible or to advance society? What modifications to laws, mores, etc. have been required to permit the developments, if any? What sciences are used and understood by alien cultures and how does this compare to human knowledge? What ability to exchange such information exists? Writers must consider all of this and more as they create.

I realize that at this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all that we’ve covered. But I hope you are beginning to see the complexity of world building and how one set of questions leads to many others on many different topics. There’s a reason so many authors choose to work with our existing world and its history rather than make up their own. It’s complicated to create a well-rounded world, and as I have said, you don’t always know what you’ll need until you need it, but it is also easy to overlook things that may stand out to readers as omissions that were important to questions they are asking.

The rest of this chapter, we’re going to cover some areas that get overlooked a lot in world building but may be just as important as the rest. Let’s start with Agriculture, Horticulture, and Diet.

Agriculture, Horticulture, Diet, and Medicine 

On the bare forest floor, in the open space between 
the trees, grew stemless plants of colossal size. 
Their leaves, four or five inches broad and eight or 
nine fee in length, sharp-toothed along their sides 
and metallic of texture, were arranged in loose roset-tes. At the center of each gaped a deep cup a foot in diameter, half filled with a noxious-looking greenish fluid, out of which a complex array of stubby organs 
projected.

It seemed to Valentine that there were things like 
knifeblades in there, and paired grinders, that could come together nastily, and still other things that 
might have been delicate flowers partly submerged. 
(Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg) 

Agricultural development is very much determined by geography and technological and scientific development. What types of crops and animals are used for food and clothing, depends upon the resources available like location of water supply, crops, grass and plant life, landscape, and more. You won’t grow much in a desert, for example, but if there are oases with water, some sheep herding can occur, like in the Middle East. There can be camels, horses, and other desert animals. In mountains, it is hard to farm the land, but there can be animals who live there as well like bears, venison, various birds, and other mammals which could be hunted for food. Plains are great for farming but limited as home for much beyond domestic animals, though coyotes, wild birds, rabbits, and other animals may thrive. And with each decision about animals, it is important to consider predators and prey—the circle of life. For anywhere one group of prey live, predators will arise to feed on them, and not just humans, but other animals. Additionally, landscape determines what kinds of bushes, shrubs, grasses, trees, etc. will be available and natural to the region for animals to live in and eat from, etc.

What type of crops you have and natural resources, of course, determines the diet of local humans and other inhabitants, and so plant life, crops, water, etc. all determine what people will eat in various parts of your world and how much as well as what they may trade to other areas for goods they cannot get. At the same time, what clothing they wear is determined by land and weather conditions and resources as well. Do they have technology to manufacture clothing or make it by hand? And so on. Sartorial concerns are easy to overlook. I remember one of the first editor comments on The Worker Prince, my first novel was “You’ve written 90k words without mention of what anyone is wearing. It seems odd.” Ooops. So I had to go back and work that in and think it through. I know of other authors who have had similar experiences.

Along with crops, animal husbandry and resources comes the issue of medicine. What kind of medicinal resources do they have? Formal or informal? Do they make drugs or manufacture them? Do they use home remedies or chemically devised cures? Do they have trained medical personnel or just village experts? Etc. Who treats the animals? What kind of training do those people have? Is it science or magic? And if magic exists, how does that work and what are the costs of performing the spells or using magic? There is always a cost for everything. Sometimes casting spells can only be done once every few days, sometimes it costs blood or energy that wipes out the magician, etc. These and more concerns become very relevant.

If there is technology, do they use machines to farm or just animals and primitive equipment? How industrial is agriculture? How regional is it? What about fishing or hunting or trapping? Can they make hybrid plants somehow by cross pollinating or do they just have to plant whatever seeds they can find? 

As we think about landscape and natural resources like plants and trees, we must also consider architecture and design. Do they have formal architecture or is it regional and informal? Are there whole industries for construction and design or is it done on the fly? Are quarries and mining involved? How do they gather materials? What issues and regional concerns come into play to determine locations of towns and types of housing, etc.? Are there formal schools or are people educated at home? What kind of educational system and higher learning is available? Are there apprenticeships? Are there internships? Trade guilds? What kinds of tools and equipment do they have available and how are those manufactured? And then, where do they get the money to buy land and build? How is land and wealth allotted? What role does it play in society?

Beyond that, what about energy production? Nuclear, solar, wind, fusion—what kind of power will there be? What of war? What of peace? What about nuclear and chemical weapons? What will medicine look like? Will we have cured diseases, genetic defects, cancer? What new answers and treatments will have been devised? What communication devices and methods will be common? What will have faded away?

Money and Business