What’s your intention?

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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What’s Your Intention?

Each chapter (or individual scene) that you write must have a specific intention. Your goal is to propel the story rationally forward in terms of: scene-setting, character-setting and/or plot development. (Refer to Rule #5.) Each scene has, to some degree, a beginning, a middle and a conclusion—or if not a definitive conclusion, a consequence. A predicament. Each scene moves the reader from here to there with both precision and passion.

Even truncated scenes, brief interludes and segues—often the most difficult scenes to write—have an intention, if only to kill time (The icy grip of winter passed slowly while Martin languished in prison…), foil a protagonist, set a trap, build emotional tension or intentionally mislead the reader. Thus, each chapter—each scene,  paragraph and single line within—must be lovingly manipulated to best accomplish that task. When you’re finished writing a scene, ask yourself: How has the story improved? How has the novel advanced? If you can’t answer precisely, rethink your intent.

Remember, whatever your intention: clear and concise sentence construction, told dramatically and passionately.

While editing, I’ll sometimes come across a scene containing a character who is confused or muddled (or an amnesiac or drugged or dreaming) and the writer decides to mirror the character’s vague and perplexed state by writing vague and perplexing prose. Absolutely not! Rule #29: Your characters may be elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise. The writer must always maintain clarity, and in solid communication with the reader.

This excerpt from Mind Games (written by me, so I’m free to plagiarize):

He remembered only colors.

Neon spirals morphed into a myriad of indecipherable images, bright kaleidoscopic fragments of light that filled his sleeping mind—colors he had never before known, nor would remember again. He felt both terror and awe and swam chaotically through the illusion, toward the encroaching pallor of consciousness. Finally, exhausted, he opened his eyes to an empty room, the residue of color fading from memory. The dim haze of approaching dawn painted the small room’s only window and, standing unsteadily, he peered toward an unknown and distant landscape, mute with the greys and browns of an unwelcomed reality.

Meaning that my intention had been to introduce a character in some sort of mental anguish, perhaps on the verge of emotional collapse. Yet told (one might hope) with a lucidity that hints of both a specific setting and the character’s state-of-mind. Once established, it’s time to move the plot forward.

Hollywood’s directors are often screaming at struggling actors; “What’s your motivation?!” In fiction writing, that relentless director inside your head should be screaming those same words. What are my intentions on this page! What am I trying to achieve here? If you’re writing a visual scene, are you providing sufficient clarity, grounding the reader in sights, sounds and textural richness? In an action scene, are you including only what’s necessary; excluding elements that slow pacing; e.g.; eliminating passive voice and avoiding unnecessary inner monologue?

From On The Edge—again, one of mine—and deep in the midst of an action sequence:

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. She squeezed the trigger repeatedly and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe.

Keep the pacing taut, not bogged down (in red) with extraneous or irrelevant—for the moment—information.

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. Who was this stranger? Might he be the same man she’d seen around town for the last several days, following her? She squeezed the trigger repeatedly, the way she’d been taught years before at the academy, and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face. She had never killed a man before and wondered if her sleep would be filled with nightmares from this day forward.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe. Now what, she wondered? What would happen next? How could she explain this to her boss, special agent Raleigh, who’d warned her to stay out of trouble?

In other words, in action scenes, your intention is to embroil your reader in a sudden rush of adrenalin. The verbiage in red may indeed be integral to the story—but not here. No flashbacks. No philosophical rhetoric. This is a literary inhale. The extraneous facts are the exhale (Refer to Rule #8)… and belong elsewhere, when the action is complete.

Or, should two characters fall in love, are you clearly identifying those characteristics—two young, confused lovers pondering their next move? Even if your lovers are doomed to ultimately fail, are you clearly elucidating only those first tender moments—and not telegraphing the heartache that will appear 200 pages later? Because revealing too much is as erroneous as revealing too little. Your intention—in this scene—is only to delve into their burgeoning passion. What comes before and what occurs next—well, everything in its own sweet time. (See Rule #16: Focus on the now.)
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Show. Don’t Tell.

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Show, Don’t Tell. (Take the long road home.)

Show, don’t tell. Most writers are aware of the axiom, and many are aware of the literology behind it. Yet some of us continue to persist in taking shortcuts that scrape the passion off our creative intentions.

However, since the adage is bandied about so often, it’s not always easy to glimpse that archetypal forest through the proverbial trees. Perhaps the time has come to dissect the meaning of the phrase, splatter some metaphoric blood, and see what makes the damn thing tick.

A writer I know once elucidated, rather ineloquently; “It means make love to me with your prose; don’t just fuck me with words.”

Or, as Wikipedia states: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique often employed…to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition and summarization.

Wikipedia further states: Author Chuck Palahniuk goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls ‘thought verbs’: (“Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…”) favoring instead the use of specific sensory details: “Action, Smell, Taste, Sound, and Feeling.”

I’m quoting from Wikipedia because I happen to believe Mr. Palahniuk’s essay is a particularly brilliant perception, profound and intelligent—and rather than read my attempt to paraphrase him, you can read his words here.

Simply stated, some writers are so busy telling us a bare-bones story1 that they forget to show us the underlying excitement: John came home. He went upstairs. He found his wife lying in a pool of blood. John ran screaming out the door, and then he called the police. An hour later, an old sergeant named O’Malley said; “It looks like murder, Mr. Smith. And you’re the prime suspect.”

That’s descriptive, sure—but it’s also a “shopping list” of chronological events. We might see John, but we certainly don’t know John. But by showing, not telling, the writer is breaking open John’s soul, and allowing us a long, honest, revealing peek inside.

I do equate showing with Active Voice and telling with Passive Voice. Not that sensory details and voice structure are synonymous, but they are compatible. I usually find that a writer plugged into the showing/not telling psychology is likely more aware of the importance of exciting, passionate writing. To me, a good novel is one that continually imparts basic grammar and story-telling mechanics (Subject-Verb-Object)2 with a powerful, dramatic voice.

I consider the above-mentioned exposition and summarization to be lazy writing. Or at least tired writing. (Certain stylistic machinations can effectively work, if properly orchestrated.) But let’s face it, even Hemingway used active voice only marginally—imho—and often slipped into a dispassionate “telling”. Would Hemingway be published today? Good question.

Because if you find yourself constantly beginning sentences with: “It was…” or “He was…” or “They were…” you’re pretty much writing in a passive, superficial voice that most readers will discover devoid of feeling. I guarantee that 9 times from 10, a writer can easily find a more passionate resonance. Consider: John was late for work.

With little effort, one can concoct a variety of active, far more visual solutions:

The alarm bell’s shrill scream sliced through John’s sleeping brain like a hot knife.

John hated mornings. He hated the sunlight playing peek-a-boo through his blinds, tormenting his eyelids with brain-numbing brightness.

John hazily recalled having closed Wiley’s Tavern the previous night with a final whiskey sour, and grinding out his last cigarette an hour later. He dreaded the encroaching dawn with a mental anguish that bordered on physical pain.

Thus, even the ordinary can become an unexpected and pleasurable experience for the reader. Plots are finite. Imagination is not.

Passion should be—must be—a staple constant in your novel. If you find yourself writing dispassionately, ask yourself whether the content belongs in your book. Often, you’ll discover the material extraneous, or redundant, or not fully refined, and your brain’s sending you signals. If your brain doesn’t want to be here… a reader probably won’t want to be either.

Writing is passion. If you don’t consider a novel as you would a jealous lover with expensive tastes—one requiring the diligence, the selflessness, the patience and the isolation (from all your other friends)—think again. And if you’re not ready for the commitment, perhaps its time to find a new lover.

1 Understand that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ axiom isn’t a license to kill. Numbing a reader’s senses with unchecked imaginative spewing isn’t going to play either. So stay away from this sort of showboat overload: The fiery explosion of daybreak shattered the tranquility of John’s repose, scattering his thoughts into a billion imprecise fragments that danced in tiny pirouettes throughout his subconscious mind as might a shower of meteors bursting toward far-off galaxies on their disparate journeys through the harsh, relenting silence of space, never again to know the love of a good woman or the taste of a good beer.

Because simple, coherent prose is the yin to creativity’s yang. So, yes—free the reader’s senses to run wild, but do so in basic, uncomplicated sentence structure: Cogent thoughts, simply told, in precise chronology.

Subject + Verb + Object (SVO); otherwise known as Active voice. Conversely, OVS is often viewed as a more passive voice. Consider—once again—the Jumping Cow Rule:

Active: The cow jumped over the moon. (SVO)
Passive: The moon was jumped over by the cow. (OVS)

Bad passive: It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow. (O,OVS)

‘It’ being an abstract representation of the object (and also a repetition of that object): Basically a clunky sentence structure… although the rare exception exists when you might find this phraseology perfect for your needs. If so, by all means use it:

“It was beauty that killed the beast.” (Fictional Carl Denim in King King.) And how could that line have been spoken any other way?

Rules can be broken…but sparingly, please.
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Action/Reaction

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Action/Reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton should have been a fiction writer. When one of the most famous minds of the 15th century proposed his 3rd Law of Motion; that For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force, he may as well have been speaking at a writer’s workshop, wearing corduroy and sipping a cappuccino.

Because old Fig was absolutely correct. This rule applies not only to the nature of the universe, but to the nature of literature as well. Because for every action one writes in fiction, one should create a reaction. Conversely, for every reaction one writes, there must be a new action (or a re-reaction.)

We shall make that Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

Life’s like that. Reality’s like that. Fiction’s like that too—at least good fiction. Why?  Because that’s the way our brain registers life.

An example:

Action: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon quite calmly at his wife’s head.
Reaction: Martha screamed.

However, let’s back step a bit:

Action: Martha stormed into the den, where her husband sat, writing a letter. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising a kitchen knife. “I’m going to kill you!”
Reaction: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon calmly at his wife’s head.

And again, another back step:

Action: Martha’s brother, Bob, a Morristown deputy sheriff, revealed on the phone that he had proof Jason murdered their mother to claim the insurance money. Bob told Martha not to “do anything stupid” until he got there.
Reaction: Martha stormed into the den. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising the knife. “I’m going to kill you!”

One more hit, bartender:

Action: Martha’s ex-lover, Bruce, erroneously told sheriff Bob that a surveillance camera had captured the image of Jason, killing his mother. (Although the man in the surveillance photo was really Phil, Jason’s long-missing twin brother.)
Reaction: Bob told Martha that he had proof it was Jason who murdered their mother to claim the insurance money.

See how this works? (The principle applies seamlessly as forward chronology as well.) An entire novel is essentially a ping-pong game of actions and reactions—each reaction also becoming an action in its own right.

A good novel is the literary perception of the Butterfly Effect—mathematician Edward Lorenz’s example of chaos theory—in which a small change (the air movement created by the flap of a butterfly’s wing) might eventually create a much larger phenomenon; theoretically in Lorenz’s case a hurricane. Filmdom is filled with such examples (ironically including the time-traveling head-scratcher The Butterfly Effect). Another nifty example is 2003’s John Cusack-starring film, Max. In Germany, a Jewish art dealer befriends a young, unpopular, confused artist named Adolf Hitler. A tenuous friendship blossoms. Yet—sorry, a spoiler!—when Max is indiscriminately killed by thugs, an enraged Adolf Hitler forgets his budding art career and becomes—well, y’know. In terms of dramatic impact, a very good example. A terrific film.

After all, who are we as writers, if not those who can ask; “What if?”

Breaking the Rules (Sort of)

Simple? Ah, but what about this scenario:

Action: “Mrs. Tummins,” said the brain surgeon, “your loving Harold, your husband of 21 years, the father of your children, the keeper of the magic key, did not survive the operation.”
Reaction: “Thank you, doctor,” replied Mrs. Tummins calmly. She walked outside without another word, across the street to the Nuvo Café and ordered espresso and a bagel. She began flirting shamelessly with the waiter.

A valid reaction? On the surface, it’s an avoidance. Mrs. Tummins’ sudden, nonchalant detachment provides us with a delicious response—but not quite the reaction anyone might expect. If readers have already been introduced to Mrs. T as a rational, loving wife, then—for the moment—the writer’s got us hooked. But a writer has to keep us on that hook. We’re looking for an ultimate reaction. And if Mrs. T’s response isn’t ultimately revealed… then it becomes a bit of negligent plotting. (And, no—it’s not up to a reader to “determine” her rationale. That’s a cop out. It’s the writer’s job to divulge.) See: Rule #17: Don’t hide from your characters. (…coming soon.)

A sly writer may not reveal Mrs. Tummins’s inner truth until the next page or the next scene or even late in Act III—but her eventual reaction is crucial for the story. If Harold’s death proves unimportant to her, then why should it be important to us? So if Mrs. T’s reaction is never explained, her action remains an avoidance… and thus the action/reaction principle stalls. Miscue a few reactions as avoidances and the book may not ultimately ring true. Why? Characters can keep secrets from other characters, but the writer should not keep secrets—unless plot-crucial—from the reader.

By the way, don’t confuse the action/reaction principle with Rule #8: Inhale, then exhale. Tensing and relaxing the plot (inhaling, then exhaling) at regular intervals provides an overarching ebb and flow to dramatic impact—the calm before (and after) a storm. A good novel might alternately inhale and exhale once or twice each scene, or perhaps each subsequent chapter. (Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example. There’s war and then peace. They fight, they make up; they fight, they make up; they fight, they make up.)

Realize that the action/reaction principle can occur on the macro level (chapter by chapter) but can also function on micro levels; for instance, as immediate as alternating lines of a terse dialog—snap, snap, snap—fast and furious. One character shouts furiously and shakes his fists. The other walks away in a brooding funk. Not only is this the action/reaction principle, it illustrates the inhale/exhale principle. All the while providing valuable dramatic impact and pushing the characters or plot to deeper levels.

Both Rule #8 and Rule #10 are critically important to a novel’s success. No breathing, no reacting, and a novel will simply sit… like a lump, like a wet fuse, like a sleeping tiger, like a car idling… awaiting a foot-stomp on the gas pedal. Remember, action/reaction need not be physical attributes—for instance, love found, love pondered, love lost, love rekindled, or an internal struggle with mental illness perhaps—each depiction of internal or external action followed by a reaction, continually, like the rise and fall of a butterfly’s wing, flapping furiously, anxiously anticipating that ultimate hurricane.
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Perfection

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Perfection.

Ah, that elusive, manipulative, petulant little imp known as perfection. I mention the illusion of perfection in a previous post (See: Where to Start) but it bears repeating. Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist. Stop trying to find it.

If you’re goading or flagellating or juicing yourself into writing a perfect novel, waiting for all those perfect ideas to fall—bump, bump, bump—into place, understand that you’ll discover no Holy Grail. No perfect chapter, nor page nor sentence occurs in a writer’s reality. Any word, any phrase, any idea, can be altered. Nudged. Tweaked. Deleted. As a writer, I can spend the remainder of my lonely days chasing a phantom that doesn’t exist—or I can sit down and write a story to the best of my ability. To the successful writer (or at least to a sane, successful writer), the glass is always half full. Knowing when to “leave it be” is key.

As scribes, we accept our limitations and strive for a single goal: Doing the best we can. So Rule #4: Do the best you can.

Don’t think of Rule #4 as settling for meh. Rule #4 isn’t about compromising your talents; it’s about stretching your genius—taking the time and making the effort—and trusting that your next book will be a tad better than your last. Only in a world unencumbered by perfection does room for improvement exist.

I bring up the notion of perfection again because I suspect a vast number of novice writers begin a manuscript with the expectation of reaching literary nirvana, the anticipation of soon seeing themselves at #1 on NYTBSL. Somewhere around page 3 or 30 or 300, those writers begin to realize instant fame isn’t going to happen. Some give up, leaving talent and a worthy, half-finished (and perhaps nearly awesome) effort behind. Pity.

Interesting mathematical statistic: 99.9% of all writers never make the New York Times Best Seller List. Many of them still find a way to live happy, fulfilling lives. Some even have cats.

I’m personally aware of several writers—and very good writers—who’ve been slowly chipping away at the same novel for years. Why? Some of us are seeking perfection, and not finding it, or maybe we’re simply seeking “good enough” and not finding that, either. (Occasionally we’re simply methodical writers—and that‘s a damn good excuse. A word of advice: Write at your own pace. Writing a novel isn’t a race, it’s an achievement.)

However…! Seeking perfection (and not finding it) is an entirely different dilemma. Occasionally, a story isn’t good enough. One’s writing isn’t fully developed or else bumps into impossible obstacles that we find ourselves unqualified or emotionally unable to handle. Most of us have a novel (or two) that has “gotten away”…that sits unfinished in our closets or in some obscure folder on our desktop. And that’s okay too. I consider those failed attempts to be a necessary learning curve. Those manuscripts are part of the process, part of our eventual success. Let them rest in peace.

So what are a few possibilities for a stalled manuscript?

  • Seeking perfection. Right. Doesn’t exist. Refer to the above.
  • Fear of failure. Understandable. Although… d’ju know what’s worse? Thinking you might have the gift, but not even trying. On your deathbed, trust me, that’ll be a big regret. You’ve been warned.
  • Fear of success. Although I’m not sure why. Talent deserves success.
  • Fear of the future (good or bad). As in…what if it doesn’t sell? What if it sells big, but my next book sucks? What if people begin to love me for all the wrong reasons? Or hate me for all the right reasons? What if I trip heading toward the stage to collect my Pulitzer. Please refer again to Rule #100: Get Over Yourself. (In it’s own humbling way, it really should be Rule #1.)
  • Writer’s block. Yeah…a bummer, but it happens: That mental or physical fatigue when words and their meaning become lost in a haze, or simply run away from your brain. You’re overtired or stressed or simply out of ideas. Don’t worry, because the empty vessel will eventually refill. But if the vacuum persists, it’s possibly something else. Eventually, it becomes an excuse. (Valid or otherwise.) One can insist to family and friends “I have writer’s block,” for a year or two…but then we just smile politely and realize the book’s not forthcoming. (It’s OK, we still love you.) But either the book’s wrong for you, or you’re wrong for the book. And, hey, it’s not your fault.
    ……I wanted to be an astronaut once. Never was. Moon block. By the way, my own personal solution for writer’s block? Stepping away from the computer and watching a Firefly marathon or else reading a book I absolutely love… for the 4th or 5th time. (Recently for me: The World According to Garp, The Forever War, The Sirens of Titan and Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser.) When my eyes blur, I clean the garage or drive up the coast. Give yourself permission to give yourself a break. It’s part of the process. If your mind’s still writhing with uncorked creativity, write a short story or work on the outline. Dream up another novel. Paint a picture. Take some photos. Often, alternate forms of creativity can replenish your writer’s drive. Give it time.
  • Fear of ridicule. (Rare, but it happens.) Your friends may find you pretentious for even trying. Seriously? Find new friends.
  • Fear of offending somebody. That somebody is usually a friend or family member, and a typically unsavory character prominently featured in your tale. Sorry, Aunt Lucy! The homicidal maniac in chapter 8 isn’t really you. Trust me, they won’t see themselves in your book. Just be sure that you change the names.
  • Fear of offending yourself. Ah, but here’s where the circle closes. We’re back to looking for perfection. Refer to Rule #25 again.

While I have no degree in shrinkology, most fiction writers are somewhat familiar with the above ambiguities. Most writers can relate. So… don’t worry, just write.
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Where to Start

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Where To Start.

New to novel writing? Or maybe you’ve tried it, and found writing… difficult. So why don’t we boil the process down to the bare bones—not of writing, but of starting. For the moment forget style, forget nuance, forget about winning that Pulitzer. Let’s talk about a before-we-even-sharpen-our-pencils kind of basic. Ask yourself this: What’s my story about?

If you don’t fully comprehend that tickle lurking inside your mind, it’s time to find out. It’s that eyeball-to-eyeball moment in the mirror. Answer that question—else your story may bump and thrash about like some gigantic, magnificent creature without a backbone. It might roar and scream and seem very impressive… but it ain’t going nowhere

Prove to yourself that you know your novel. Define your story in a page or two or three. Sit down and create a short synopsis or plot summery. Introduce yourself to this astounding—yet desperately needy!—lover who’ll soon capture your heart, but in return will demand a great deal of your attention and affection. (And kiss more than a few weekends goodbye!)

If that request seems overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? Write a synopsis. For example:

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Amidst the rumble of an approaching Civil War, we find Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, teen-aged daughter of a wealthy Atlanta plantation owner, caught in her own giddy social bubble. Scarlett is clueless about the meaning of life, or the value of honor—although as the war rages, she discovers newfound courage and an inkling of character. Briefly married, she is quickly widowed by the calamity of war. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett’s beloved plantation, Tara, falls victim to the advancing Union army, and she must decide between her love of the land and her dedication to friends and family. She falls under the spell of a rebel blockade runner named Rhett Butler. The two are unsuited, but soon after the war’s end, she weds Rhett not for love but rather for his brash charisma and wealth—his ability to save Tara from the ravages of a lost war. However, their happiness quickly spirals into bitterness and remorse—and Scarlett ultimately decides that saving her home, Tara, is more important than saving her marriage. Still, she gathers the strength to hope for a brighter future.

It’s a sketchy synopsis, it’s incomplete (for instance, no mention of Ashley, of Melanie, or of Scarlett’s children), but it carries forth the deep core of the plot. Now, what about your story? What is its heart and soul? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel is essential. So crucial that it’s Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

A typical progression of a new idea—getting it out your head and onto the page and ultimately into a book shop—will look something like this:

A brief synopsis. (Short and sweet. See above.) Oh, and don’t delete it after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I will.)

(Optional) An expanded synopsis. It’s okay to add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. Give yourself another 5 or 10 or 20 pages to explore your ideas. Make mistakes. Think new thoughts. Re-evaluate. Leave blanks. Every time I finish a synopsis, even a first draft, I find myself with a few dozen gaps where I’ve typed [IDEA TO COME]—and yes, in bright, bold red—before moving along to those ideas that are freely flowing. Trust that every idea you need will arrive—and in its own damn time. Writing a novel is funny that way. PS: If you’re one of those people loathe to leave a blank space, who must write every word precisely in chronological order, who must pen every thought with unwavering exactitude, striving for immediate perfection, my advice is this: Get over yourself. In fact, it’s even a rule. Rule #100: Get over yourself.* Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. There’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. Perfection is an illusion—a Siren singing sweetly on the rocks of self-importance and ultimate disillusion. We do the best we can, and we also finish the book.

The outline. This process is little more than bullet-pointing the story, scene-by-scene. It’s the literary equivalent of story-boarding a movie. You’re puzzle-piecing a plot into place, with methodical, mechanical deliberation. No fluff, no poetic license. And it’s OK if the finished book bares little resemblance. The outline is strictly a tool to use, change, update and tweak as you so choose.

First Draft. Now you’re ready to fill in the outline with crucial basic information. You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and introducing characters, keeping in mind how you foresee each character arc—that is, how you believe each character may grow during the tale. Now’s the time to point a direction for your plot—what’s necessary, what’s not—with an understanding that so many facets of your story may change over the duration of this journey. (Some writers have an iron-clad plot already in mind and, if you do, congrats! I usually have a hazy whisper of where my plot may go, although my characters are fairly well developed before I begin writing.) Dialog is important—but worry less about polished dialog and more about the basic necessity of keeping your characters and plot on a forward trajectory. (And much more about dialog as this blog develops.) You should see a basic writing style begin to emerge—but sometimes finding your voice takes a bit of “warming up”…so don’t panic if you find your first few pages raw or clunky. Relatively few writers manage to pretty much finish their book in a single pass. If you’re one of those skillful few… by all means, go for it. However, most of us need room to maneuver and an eraser (metaphorically speaking) the size of Philadelphia.

Second Draft. You’re adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and story line. Adding color and sounds and smells. Augment your dialog—revealing character traits and subtle innuendo. You’ve already built a creature of bare bones, now you’re adding frizzy blonde hair and freckles and one unlaced hi-topped Keds. You’re “putting the red on the apple” as they say. (By the way, the “Second Draft” phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.) drafts… until you feel the story you’re telling feels complete.

The Stick-it-in-a-Drawer Phase. Seriously. Put it away for a week or a month. Try to forget that you’ve ever written it.

Polishing. Read your story again with fresh brain cells. Tweak and polish and cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the blanks. Trim threads from the tapestry. Be sure every aspect belongs. Speed up the action or, when it doubt, truncate or eliminate the morass. If you feel something reads slow, don’t assume it isn’t. If you think it is, your readers will think so too. Definitely find ways to truncate or tweak the slow spots. Oh, and kill your darlings.

And there’s your finished novel. Piece of cake, right?

 


* RE: Rule #100. Unless, of course, this particular procedure works for you. Some writers (I believe Arthur C. Clarke was one, although I may be mistaken) would write a single perfectly structured thought (whether it was a paragraph or a page) before moving on. A single draft, thoroughly polished, chronologically stable, even stunning, from beginning to end. If it works for you, awesome! Ignore this rule! However, if you find yourself hovering maniacally over an incomplete thought for a week, a month, or a year, unable to push forward even a line or two—yeah, learn to love the blank space. Jump ahead and return when the mind is ripe. (And pity the poor wordsmith who lived before cut&paste!) But trust yourself. Trust the future. All good thoughts will come in time.
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