Friday, October 23, 2020

Editing-Writing-Storyboard Dance--When to Do Each One to Create the Best Book

One of my past clients has been working hard on her memoir.  She emailed me a few weeks ago with a good question about the best rhythm for book writers who are in revision.  How do you know what's needed next--more editing, more writing, or the long view of a storyboard or charts?  What are the signs that it's time for each of these all-important tasks?

I call it a dance.  Ideally, there's a predictable flow between each activity, with markers along the way to tell you when to change partners.

Writing has the quality of exploration, of filling in gaps, of finding out new depths to your book.  Those who like to move fast, who feel impatient with lingering (think descriptions that you skip when reading), may not write enough.  Or their writing may be action based, always needing something happening.  When it comes time to grasp this dance partner's hand, it forces the writer to slow down and go deep.  The feeling or image brain gets involved, rather than the linear one.

Editing is almost 100 percent linear.  It uses the part of us that analyzes and judges.  To edit well, we need distance from the story--many writers give themselves breaks between writing those early drafts and going back in to edit them to a shine.  Why?  Because if you're too tired up in the story, what you intend, what really happened, you'll have trouble getting the distance needed to judge cleanly.  You'll be prejudiced towards what you like, rather than what the story (or reader) needs.  

Storyboarding falls somewhere between the two.  It's both an exploration tool and a refinement tool, used differently at different times of the book's progress.   I usually storyboard three times in the life of a book:  once to brainstorm the story, once after I've drafted about 30,000 words (one third of the normal book length) to see what I still need to fill in and if the book's gone in a different direction I like better, and a final time during revision.  The early storyboarding efforts (first and second time) are about exploring, similar to writing.  They help you get ideas and find where you're selling your story short or lingering too long.  The final storyboard is about judging what you have:  is it traveling in a clear, clean direction?

So, depending on what you most need, you pick the task that fits.  

It's good to say a few words about transitions in the writing process, at this point.  Not a topic much discussed in writing classes, but so important to staying in the dance.

When I get stalled out, confused about my next step, I take a break.  I'm entering a transition or new part of the journey--that's what the confusion is often about--and I don't know the dance steps yet.  I like to go back to my original purpose for writing the book, to clarify them.

I'll set a timer and give myself a 20 minute freewrite assignment:  Why am I writing this book?  What do I hope to impart to the reader?  Who is my reader, exactly?  What's the larger meaning behind this story?  

Lots of times this clarifies for me the particular task I need to tackle next.  If I've strayed too far from my original intent (Why am I writing this book?), I know that writing might be needed.  I need to write more to relocate that intent in the story itself.  Maybe it's a theme that's been left behind by the action.  Maybe it's a meaning I've become too shy to bring out fully.  If I'm clueless about my reader and what I'm trying to communicate, that usually signals a need for editing.  The story has become for me alone, not for the reader, and I have to examine the scenes and possibly the storyboard to find out how to bring the reader back into the conversation.  If I can't find the larger meaning, that points to all three tasks.  

Perhaps this will be helpful to my client with the good question, or to you.  

Friday, October 16, 2020

When Your Characters Fade from the Page--Tips to Find Out Where and How to Revive Them

Combing for new ideas, insights, and writing exercises to offer in my upcoming characters class on November 7, I found a scratchy list I'd made while working on a client's manuscript some months ago.  It had everything to do with fading characters, why they disappear inadvertently and how to bring them back.

This writer was finishing her first memoir.  A good writer, a careful one, and her real-life characters were amazingly depicted--people you'd definitely remember, both for good and not.  

A recurring challenge she had (one I've seen in my own writing):  certain characters kept getting lost.  They'd vanish from the story for pages, even chapters.  Not because they weren't important or present.  But because the writer herself lost track of them.  

For instance, her mother.  A wicked woman, very vivid in the early chapters, went offstage for about 35 pages in the middle.  From her outline, I knew the mother was still around, still making trouble,  Why wasn't she more present?  As a reader, it bothered me, like a hole or gap in the storyline.  When I asked the writer, she figuratively smacked her forehead.  "I forgot," she said.  "There are so many people to keep track of."

Problem is, the reader does keep track.  And when a character vanishes, the reader notices.  This noticing and wondering begins to occupy more and more of the reader's attention, until they are distracted from the story.  

Good editors or agents are trained to catch these gaps.  I remember when my first novel, Qualities of Light, got accepted for publication.  My editor noticed I'd done the same thing--a young man named Chad, important in the story, disappeared for a good chunk.  It wasn't on purpose.  I'd just been so occupied with other aspects of the story, I'd forgotten to write him in.

First, know this is normal.  Impossible to keep track of everyone without charts and lists, I've found.  I will talk about my cheat sheet in the class on November 7, but here are some pointers you might consider to keep your characters present and real for your readers.

1.  Characters vanish for readers if they are too internal.  We learn about people by seeing them in action, not just by hearing their thoughts and feelings.  Long passages or chapters where a character only thinks, remembers, feels can distance the reader.  Make them do something, onstage, in front of us, and they grow in vividness and presence.

2.   How do you describe your character's physical appearance, hair color, gestures, movement/gait, height and weight, clothes, how they stand or sit, what their hands do when they're nervous?  Write a paragraph or two about this.  Then comb your chapters to see where (and if) these details appear.  Not usually effective to clump them--that feels like an authorial aside.  Better to scatter and repeat.  A colleague calls it "plant and return."  Readers forget!  Remind them often, through a variety of details, what the person looks like onstage so they can visualize and not forget.

3.  Let your characters describe other characters.  "Leah noticed that John's eyes looked smaller today, his forehead more pinched."  "Sherm had changed his hair color.  Janice wasn't sure she liked the almost metallic silver-brown but she resolved not to say anything mean."  We see characters not only through their own movements and awareness of themselves, but through the other people onstage.  It's an effective way of getting details across that might be too self-conscious if a character studied themselves in a mirror ("I notice my brown eyes, too wide set to be pretty, and my limp hair.").

And to put this into practice, along with many more character-writing techniques for memoir and fiction, join me at my class on November 7.  Click on the date for more information.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Poets and Writers New List of "Best Writing Books"--and My Personal Favs

 Around this time of year, maybe because the back-to-school energy has tempted me, I begin to look at buying another writing book or two. I mark them up, use them in classes, and study them all winter during prime writing time (hibernation). This week, I came across the latest list from Poets and Writers, a wonderful resource for all of us. (If the link doesn't work, go to their website and search for "best writing books.")

It's a very comprehensive list, but I thought I'd add a few favorites of my own, books that have been well-thumbed and underlined over the years. You'll have your own favorites too.

It pays every now and then to get what I call a "smart boost" by refreshing your craft skills. Hard to do when you're neck deep in a manuscript, or trying to meet a deadline, but if you can give yourself a couple of hours this week to go back to a favorite craft book or check out a new one.

A few of my favorite writing books:

Friday, October 2, 2020

Submitting to Contests: Worth It or Waste of Money and Time?

A great way to get your writing out there, seen by readers and possibly your future agent (agents browse literary journals and magazines and website), is contests. Writing contests, if you have the happy experience of winning or even placing as a finalist, can also boost your query letter/resume considerably.

Quite a few of my clients and students submit to contests regularly. "It's great practice to have a deadline," one of them told me. She tries to submit something every month, even has the next submission ready to send as soon as she gets a rejection back. "Rejections are no fun but they're part of the writing life if you want to get published. It helps me not get discouraged if I can keep sending out my work no matter what."

Why contests? They cost. (A past student emailed that she was getting ready to send an essay and some poetry to a Writer's Digest contest. Then she found out about the fee. "They CHARGE you to enter," she told me. "Is this legit?" Short answer: Yup. Many contests charge. There are also a lot of free ones.) But they also give you an entry into journals and lit magazines.