SURVIVING TOMORROW AND ME IN THE NEWS!!

So, the local Kansas City ABC affiliate did a nice piece on Surviving Tomorrow that ran on three prime time newscasts yesterday. It’s my first time on local news (bucket list, check!) and I thought it’s be fun to share it with you. So here it is.

To read the text, click here. KMBC Reports on Surviving Tomorrow

To order your copy of Surviving Tomorrow please visit https://survivingtomorrowanthology.com.

Apology For My Blog Absence

When I decided to take a brief blogging break in May, I started posting reruns of classic WriteTips every Wednesday, my most popular feature. The intent was to give me time to write some new WriteTips and get ahead of my posting schedule, but unfortunately, instead, I wound up in oral surgery while dealing with a major car repair, release details of an anthology and novel, and many other deadlines converging to a point of great stress and exhaustion and then I wound up in quarantine with a COVID-19 scare. Needless to say, I never got posts written and I have yet to fully resume blogging. On top of that my host tech has had some health issues and the site has been spotty due to server issues. I want to apologize for my signal silence and promise that I am well and will resume my website duties soon.

In the meantime, I will be posting a news interview I did about Surviving Tomorrow, my COVID-19 fundraising anthology created with a bunch of awesome friends and colleagues. It’s my first time on the local news, so I hope you enjoy! You can find that here.

You can also check out the sneak peak of my forthcoming novel Milk Run here, which will be book 4 in my John Simon Thrillers.

WriteTip Classic: 9 Tools For Character Development

Character Development is core to good storytelling. After all, characters are whom readers connect to and if they are stagnant and unchanging, the story can fail to hold reader’s interest. Growth of characters creates drama and propels the story. So what tools can you use to develop characters well? Here’s ten suggestions:

1) Treat Your Characters As Individuals–People are unique, no two the same, and so should it be with your characters. So each character should respond differently to a situation as any other character. In particular, fight scenes, for example, can often be a place where characters blend into one, as they all react the same. Instead try treating such common scenes as opportunities to reveal character through uniqueness. How would one character fight differently than another? Work this in and your story will be richer, your characters stronger. There are many other common scene types where you can similarly emphasize the uniqueness. Look for them.

2) Vary The Vocabulary–People use words differently, so your characters should as well. One of the best ways to distinguish and develop characters is through dialogue. Educated people use more sophisticated words, while less educated structure sentences  differently. Think of this as you develop each character’s voice and use it to set them apart, create conflict and develop them throughout your story. Vocabulary, in fact, is far more effective than attempting to create accents. Phonetically, accents already pose problems and can even devolve into silly or, far worse, confusing dialogue styles which detract from the story.

3) Scene Point Of View–Another way to develop character is by choosing the protagonist whose point of view will tell particular scenes. I tend to consider who has the most at stake in a particular scene and make the scene happen in that POV but there are varied theories. Whatever your method, your characters can be developed well through use of POV. For example, I had a scene where a couple are fighting. At the same time, an old enemy is stalking them, intent to do them harm. I told the scene from the enemy’s POV, even though he never interacts with the couple because it allowed me to further both the romantic storyline and the antagonist’s storyline in one scene through his internal monologue as he witnesses their discussion. Three character arcs and two plotlines were thus furthered in one short scene.

4) Sartorial Style–People’s tastes vary, and so should characters’. What they wear, how they choose it, etc. can be a part of characterization. Everything from color to fabric choices to scale, formality, and even clothing cost can be used to establish character. We use such things daily as we observe others to determine things about them, and readers will use such details as clues to define characters if you include them.

5) Naming–Names say a lot about who we are, and so choosing character names is another way to develop them or establish particular impressions almost immediately in reader’s minds. Someone named ‘Timothy’ and someone named ‘Theodore’ will be considered differently by readers. The first sounds more common and less formal, while the second sounds a bit more haughty and implies a different educational level or even class level. Now that’s stereotyping, of course, so sometimes naming a character contrary to the impression the name gives can also be a tool you use. But whatever the tactic, character naming is a very important tool in their development. In addition to formal names, nicknames can also be employed as well. Whether a character has a nickname, uses it or likes it, can say a lot about who they are.

6) Props–We all have our favorite do-dads, don’t we? Things we take with us everywhere we go. The cliches for women are purses and for men, perhaps, favorite hats, but we all have something. Sometimes it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. Other times, it’s carried around for all to see. Props are a great tool for revealing character. Spend time observing people around you. What props does each person have? Keep a spreadsheet or list of potential props for characters. Yes, when writing fantasy or science fiction you might have to be more inventive than just copying from a list you made at the mall. That’s called writing, dears. In any case, props can add great flavor and speak volumes about characters.

7) Companions–Fellow characters, animal or otherwise, can be great for revealing character. We see how they interact with each other and we learn volumes about who they are. Think about it: what would the Lone Ranger have been without Silver or Tonto? What about Batman without Robin? There’s a reason Michael Keaton quit after two movies: he was lonely (Ok, that might be just a guess). Who a person spends his or her time with says a lot about them and so use it to develop your characters well.

8 ) Backstory–It seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to forget to dig deeply into a character’s past for material to develop the character. Even things you know about them but don’t include in your narrative can be of value. All the experiences of that character’s past serve to shape who he or she is becoming, from determining responses to various stimuli to emotional hotpoints from happy to fearful. When your character seems to become stagnant, review what you know about his or her past, then ask yourself if maybe there might be more to uncover which would help you as you write. You can only have too little backstory, never too much. It’s core to the internal battles all people face and will enrich your ability to write your characters with depth and broadness that stretches outside the boundaries and limitations of your story itself.

9) Traits–Another that seems obvious but developing your character’s likes and dislikes can take you all kinds of places, especially when you examine how they might clash with those of the characters around them and even the attributes of the world around them. All kinds of instances will soon arise where you can reveal more of the character through actions resulting from these traits. In the process, your story will have built in conflict and drama and perhaps even humor you might not have thought of before. Character traits are a great way to add spicy detail to your story, surprising and entertaining readers at the same time. And don’t just limit yourself to personal preferences either. Character traits can also include physical ticks like clenching hands when angry or a slight stutter or even a limp or other defect.

Okay, there you have them: 9 Tools For Character Development. Have more? Please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear what tools and tricks you employ. Let’s learn from each other.

For what it’s worth…


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 Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue

Writing dialogue can be a challenge for some writers more than others, but it’s an extremely important part of good fiction. There are many tools and techniques one can use, the most important being to use your powers of observation. By listening to dialogue of the real people around you, you can learn how people talk, especially people of different socioeconomic, educational and age groups. But there are craft elements involved as well. Here’s 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue:

1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said.

2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.”

3)  Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows.

4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it.

5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest.  Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly.

6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis–back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace.

 7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this.

8 ) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done.

9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it.

10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same.  There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work.

Well, those are my 10 Tips of the moment for writing better dialogue. Do you have any others? We’d love for you to share them in the comments.


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 Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories? But writing action can be a challenge for writers. When making movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned.

1) Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up.

2) Use action to break up dialogue and dialogue to break up action.Intersperse the two components in short segments to add a sense of pacing and tension. Writing long sections of dialogue and long sections of action will tend to read slow and thus stall the pacing. This is especially true of dialogue as noted above. Alternating them adds a sense of realism and keeps things moving.

3) Get to the point. Long descriptions of weapons and scenery don’t belong here. If things need to be set up, do it before the sequence occurs so you don’t have to interrupt the action to do it. You want to focus on sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc. Are they sweating? Are they hurting? Not on what the building behind them looks like or even the street itself. You don’t want to spend pages like Tom Clancy describing their weapon here. We need to know what it is and how it works and their skill level so we can not be surprised by their actions, but set that up elsewhere. During the action, we should already know.

4) Don’t make it too easy. Yes, the hero will likely win. But make it a challenge. Be sure and make the opponents threatening enough that the hero is in real jeapordy, otherwise the dramatic impact will be greatly lessened. No matter how skilled your hero is, he or she must have to face obstacles. In action sequences the odds should seem stacked against him.  Let them bleed from a wound. Let them misfire or miss with the sword. Let them sweat and even have to run, barely escaping. Sometimes it’s even good to let them lose one time only to have them win later on. Force them to stretch themselves in some way to succeed. Make them human or the reader’s will struggle to care.

5) Keep it believable.  This goes hand in hand with number 4. Real people are imperfect. They make mistakes. They fail. Make sure your action sequences are well researched and realistic. Besides humanizing the hero, don’t have vehicles or weapons performing beyond their capabilities. You may assume readers won’t know the difference but some will. And writing without limits rings hollow. Make sure you respect the limits and use them to up the tension. A man stuck with a sword fighting men with guns will face tense moments. A man against incredible odds is a man we root for.

6) Keep it tight. Anything absolutely not necessary should be cut. This includes long descriptions and dialogue as mentioned in number 1 but also the scene openings and closings. The rule I learned in film school was to get in a scene as late as possible and out as soon as possible. Nothing hurts pacing more than disobeying this rule. Be sure you start the action as fast as possible and end it the same. Don’t drag it out unnecessarily in your desire to make it more dramatic or a “cooler” sequence. Make it exactly as long as it really needs to be to serve the story and no longer.

7) Give the readers breathing space. Be careful about putting too many action sequences too close together. Movies build to a climax which may have twenty minutes of action but before that action scenes are interspersed with slower moments. Make sure you intersperse your action sequences with moments of character building and reflection, dialogue and discovery–slower sequences which allow readers to breathe a bit before the next intense action scene. In between scenes are where you make action sequences matter.  Action is not just about a character we care about surviving but about stakes he or she has in that victory. What is the character’s driving need or goal? This gets set up in other scenes and provided driving undercurrent to the action which makes us care.

8 ) Pick your moments. Action stories tend to have several sequences spread throughout. Be sure you consider in choosing which sequence to include where the overall dramatic level of them. You want the biggest action sequence in the entire piece to be either at the closing of the piece. Those in between should leave room for a build up to the major action sequence to come. Ideally, each scene builds up to those that follow but this can be accomplished in ways besides upping the stakes and tension or odds. With proper character arcs, character’s emotional stakes can be developed in such a way that each later sequence matters that much more, making the readers care more as well.

9) Make it matter. Action scenes do not exist solely to entertain readers and add tension. They have a greater purpose to serve the story. Something must happen which ups the stakes or increases the challenges with each scene in your story and action scenes are no exception. Don’t write action for the sake of action. Write action because it serves the story. Every action sequence should move the story and characters forward in their journey, if not, they don’t belong int he story.

10) Incorporate humor. Humor is a great tool for not only breaking the tension but building character during action sequences. It’s no accident characters like LEthal Weapon’s Riggs and Die Hard’s McClane engage in witty banter during such moments and your characters can as well. From funny actions to funny dialogue snippets, this makes the action both more enjoyable and less tense when done at the right moments and can add a lot to reader enjoyment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate it when you can. It doesn’t have to be cheesy catch phrases either. It’s all in the wording.

Just a few tips I hope will help you in writing action scenes for your stories and novels. I know these lessons have helped me.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my latest novel, The Sideman:

The Sideman Teaser

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip Classic: Special Punctuation—How to Properly Employ Ellipses, Em Dash, En Dash, and Hyphens

Flashing back to Feb. 2012 when I posted this post that I think might be useful to some of you still.

Ahhhh punctuation. A gift and yet a bane for us all, isn’t it? Editors fix way too much of it. Writers get confused and abuse too much of it. And the rest of the world scratches their head and gives up with a bevy of messages which start to look like this: cumin 2c u ok so b thr & b readE.”

Sigh.

Today’s Write Tip is the first in what will be an ongoing series on Editing. Why am I starting with this? Because it came up first in my freelance editing and I think it’s an area all of us need clarification on. I keep my rule of thumb handy and refer to it regularly, so here goes.

Let’s examine the most common special punctuation characters we encounter:

… Ellipses

— Em dash

– En dash

– Hyphen

Here’s my simple rules for their use, based on reviewing several style guides and online resources as well as grammar books. Yes, some variations do exist, but those can get pretty complicated. If you follow these simple rules, you’ll please most people, and at least use them well. (You can’t please everybody, so let’s not pretend that we can.)

RULE OF THUMB:

Ellipses (…)

An Ellipses (…) is appropriate if the speaker trails off leaving an incomplete sentence.

Example:“Well, I was going to talk about it, but…”

This could end a sentence or be mid-paragraph as their mind wanders:

Example: “Well, I was going to talk about it, but…hey, cool hat! I really like that. So where was I?”

 

Ellipses are also used for omission of words, phrases, lines or paragraphs from a quote, in which case they replace the missing portion(s).
Ellipses can also be used for missing or illegible words.

Example: “Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s “The Worker Prince” will appeal to readers of all ages…deftly explores a world where those who believe in one God labor against oppressors, and a single man may have the power to change their situation for the better….” — Brenda Cooper, Author of The Silver Ship and the Sea and Mayan December

One last note: Ellipses at the end of a sentence should always be followed by a period thus …. at the end of the quote above.

 

Em dash (—)

An Em dash (—) is for when the speaker is cut off either by an event or another speaker.

Example: “I think we may have a problem here, but” BOOM (car explodes).

Example: Tom was excited. “I think we may have a problem here, but” “Just shut up and follow me!” Sara said and started running.

An Em dash (—)  is also appropriate when a thought is interrupted with a clause such as: “The bass—the biggest fish Josh ever caught—was only six inches, don’t let him lie.”

 

En dash(–) 

An En dash(–) is used when demonstrating numerical ranges such as 100–200 or when making compound adjectives with more than one word “pro–German Army campaign.” In this case, the proGerman Army are two words which must function together as one adjective.

 

The hyphen (-)

The hyphen (-) is often mistaken for a dash but a dash it is NOT. The hyphen (-) is for joining words, separating syllables, simple adjectives, such as “pro-German,” phone numbers, multi-word numbers, or in prefixes and suffixes.

Examples:

twenty-eight 

co-star

ex-wife

girl-next-door

314-555-1212

syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion

fighter-sized

line-of-sight

shell-like

anti-intellectual

I hope you get the idea. All of these can be greatly abused, of course, and paragraphs wind up looking like this:

I was hoping…well, anyway…never mind.  Would you like to go to the zoo—the new one—with me? It’s not really that far…just down in line-of-sight of twenty-eighth in that pro-Italian community, you know?”

This is simply abuse. Please remember that the purpose of punctuation is to provide clarity, not make things more complex or unclear. They are designed to help readers and speakers know where to pause, where the clauses come together, where lines of thought diverge, etc. So use them wisely. Remember that if your publisher or editor has a style guide or subscribes to specific manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style,  you really need to consult that guide first before finalizing usage to avoid problems. It’s a matter of being a pro.

I hope the above rule of thumb is helpful. It certainly helps me. I’ll be working on more of these. Do you have requests?


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.

Write Tip: Writer’s Block Is Not a Myth But Keep Writing (3 Steps)

One of my pet peeves is when I hear fellow writers advise others writers that “writer’s block is a myth.” Having experienced writer’s block for myself, I find this condescending, and I’m not sure why those writers need to feel so superior to others by denying a problem so many have experienced. There’s nothing more frustrating than writing along making good progress until you reach that spot where for some reason, your mind just stops—blanks, or freezes, or whatever you want to call it—and you can’t seem to put words together to push on to the next scene. It’s a phenomenon most every writer has experienced, so calling it a myth feels dismissive and condescending. “Hey, you may be so lucky you’ve never had the problem, but I haven’t, and I don’t appreciate your denying it exists because that doesn’t help!”

But here’s the thing: writer’s block is not a myth but it’s also not an excuse to stop writing.

“What?” You say. “But isn’t that the definition of Writer’s Block, that you can’t write?” Yes and no.

Writer’s Block is finding yourself stuck at a particular point in the story. Maybe a particular scene or line, maybe even mid-scene or mid-sentence. Try as you might, you can’t seem to get past it, and the problem seems to drag on hour after hour, sometimes even for several days.

The mistake many writers make is to let that keep them from writing, but that’s a mistake, and here’s why. Writer’s Block happens when there’s a problem in your story your subconscious knows about that your conscious self hasn’t realized yet. That’s right. Your subconscious is warning you the story isn’t working but you can’t see it because consciously you haven’t identified or recognized the problem yet. Usually it’s something you’ve already written that has a logic or other issue. Sometimes it can be what you are about to write next.

For linear writers, this is particularly frustrating because your normal pattern is to write scenes chronologically and not skip around. So when you get stuck on your next scene, the whole project comes to a halt. You literally feel like you can’t write until you get over the block so you can create the next scene in order like you’re supposed to. But I submit that this type of wrong thinking only exacerbates the problem.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it gives you an excuse not to write. And every time you give yourself an excuse not to write—essentially violating your discipline and your commitment to productivity—you make it that much easier to use the same excuse the next time. So day after day of using Writer’s Block as an excuse not to write—“I can’t write. Writer’s Block.”—can allow the problem to stretch out even further.

Instead, I argue, you should work the problem. And here’s how.

First, look at your story. Go back and think through any scene or moment where you felt even a little uncertainty and ask yourself about it. What bothered you? Why was that troubling? Is it still bothering you? If so, that’s a spot you might want to look at. If not, then move on to the next one. In doing this, you will do things. One, you will stimulate your mind to think about story problems and reexamine your overall story subconsciously even as you look at each moment one by one. Two, you may uncover the very problem that’s causing the block, thus moving you that much closer to the possibility of a solution.

Second, write something else. Professional writers like myself often have multiple projects going on at once. When we’re writing one novel or story, we have another waiting to be rewritten or polished or edited. So switch to that for a while. Writing, rewriting, and editing take different brain space from each other, and just by shaking up what you are focused on and doing something else, the problem may reveal itself subconsciously and work its way out to your conscious mind. Relieving the building stress and frustration of being blocked is also one of the best ways to solve the block and resume writing. So anything you can do to keep writing and not feel stressed about productivity or progress is a win.

Now, I can’t write two novels at the same time, because juggling all the complex plots and characters is really too hard and tends to weaken both projects. But what I can do is do a rewrite on something else, edit something else yet again, and write a short story and/or screenplay while writing a novel, so I often have those other projects to choose from.

3. Write a different scene. Even if you don’t multitask, you can always find a scene ahead in the story that you’ve pictured in your mind with some clarity. So think through your story and identify such a scene then try writing it.

I know what you’re thinking. “But I am a linear writer, that’s not how I work.” Exactly! The point is to push through the block, so switching up how you do things is a great way to shake things up and free your mind to find the solution. So what if the scene you write out of order may need a little tweaking once you go back and write what leads up to it? Rewriting is part of the process anyway. You’ll be doing it one way or another at some point so no harm, no foul (to use a sports term). But in the process of writing past where you’re stuck, you may also discover a new angle or plot twist that opens up new possibilities you’d never thought of before that paves the way to solving the block problem. And just by becoming conscious of those possibilities, you allow your mind the freedom to work through the problem and find a solution. It happens to me all the time.

Again, while I strongly disagree with those who dismiss Writer’s Block as a myth, I also strongly disagree with those who use it as an excuse to stop writing. When you’re under contract, you’ll find that most of the time, not writing isn’t an option. Your deadline isn’t blocked. It’s not going to move. You still have to meet that to get paid. So writing something is a whole lot better than writing nothing  because at least it’s progress. And if it has the bonus of freeing your mind from the block and allowing you to approach the story from a new timeframe and angle that illuminates the problem causing your block, then that’s even better! So find a scene you can write and write that. Trust me, even if you throw most of it out, you’ll feel better because the frustration and stress will be relieved, at least for the moment.

So there you have 3 Steps you can take to Work The Problem of Writer’s Block and push through to keep writing and being productive. Do you have other tips? We’d love to hear them in comments. Meanwhile, I hope this helps you. Happy writing!

 

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.