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Getting the bones right

I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?

This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.

My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.

This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”

Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.

That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.

This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.

This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.

Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.

But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.

Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.

I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.

You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.

Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.

It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.

If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.

August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC

Tags: bones, story structure, deep structure, PNWA, premise, Donald Maass, outline, themes, pacing, drama, rising stakes, rising tension, Stephen King, fossil, inspiration, Elizabeth Lyon, writer's block

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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PNWA Day Two: I met the airline safety card guy

Day two of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference. I probably did more talking in one single day than I have done in years, and it’ll be a miracle if my voice holds up for tomorrow, but I survived.

I got to play both sides of the fence today: as conference Book Doctor helping aspiring writers learn how to strengthen their books, and as an aspiring writer myself pitching my books to a couple of literary agents. One of my consultations today was with the guy who claims—with some merit, I would say—to be the most widely distributed illustrator on the planet. He’s the guy who illustrates those fold-out safety cards in the back pocket of every airline seat in the world. You know that iconic drawing of the mother with her oxygen mask already in place, helping her child put on the day-glo yellow mask? He did that, and all the rest of them. He and his wife run a whole company that does that. His art is literally all over the world. His art has probably saved lives. How cool is that?

The Book Doctoring is fun. I have to admit, it’s fun, and not just because you meet people who save lives through technical illustration. There were two consultations I did today that I was worried about, because the material was very weak. But my hat is off to the writers, because they brought absolutely the right attitude to the table: a genuine desire to learn, and the maturity to set their ego aside in order to do that. All nine of the writers I spoke with today were that way, really. It’s hard not to have fun when you get to have nine in-depth conversations about a subject you love all in the same day. In the end, everybody left my table knowing what they need to do to put their books in a publishable state, or if not that, at least to take their writing to the next level.

In a nutshell, that’s is the great part about my job. Being able to do that for people is a very satisfying thing indeed.

In the middle of the day I had a break to go pitch my stuff to some agents. The first person I talked with was David Forrer of Inkwell Management. We had a great talk about the young-adult western adventure novel I wrote in 2007. He also suggested that his agency likes to work with freelance book editors like me, so we traded business cards and that was a nice bonus.

The second person I pitched to was Minju Chang, of Bookstop Literary Agency. I actually pitched to her at last year’s conference, so it was nice to see her again. She’s very friendly, and does a great job of putting nervous writers at ease so we can tell her about our books. She wasn’t so keen on the sci-fi novel I pitched her, but she had good feedback for me.

Like Robert Dugoni says, somewhere on my Quotes Page, all of us can always improve our writing. That goes for book doctors too.

I spent the afternoon in consultations with the rest of the day’s clients, one of whom I have been looking forward to talking with for a couple of weeks, ever since I reviewed her submission. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I mean you!) I was doubly impressed to learn it was her first novel. First novels (and especially first drafts of first novels) usually have a lot less going for them than hers did. I hope I get to read the rest of the book someday. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, use that discount code and hire me!)

The evening finished off with dinner in the big ballroom and a keynote speech by thriller-writer Joseph Finder (that’s with a short-i, not a long-i). He gave what is a semi-stock speech for this kind of conference, the “story of how I made it as a writer” speech. But it was a great speech, because he brought a lot of fresh and very funny angles to it from his personal experiences. That man has led an interesting life.

But for me, the capper to the day came right at the very end. All day, here and there, people have been talking with me in the halls to ask more about how I could help them, and after the speech ended, the desserts had vanished, and the scheduled activities ended for the day, I found myself in yet another such conversation with an eager, first-time writer. In the middle of this, conference organizer and PNWA president Pam Binder came up to me and asked if I could help her out.

She said that one of the book doctor clients, who had been assigned to a different person than me, had received a very short and unsatisfactory consultation, and hadn’t felt like he had gotten his money’s worth. Now remember, these people have paid extra to the conference (not to us, alas!) for these book doctor sessions, and many of them have come from quite a long ways off. I’ve got people on my list from Washington D.C., Florida, all over. This half-hour consultation is a big deal for them, because it represents time, money, a lot of effort, in the hopes of getting something of a road-map for where to take their writing career next; to not get that must have been a huge let-down.

Pam looked at me and asked if I could possibly do anything to help.

I looked at her and said “Of course.” So the person will e-mail their material to me, and I’ll give them a do-over. I’m happy to, because whoever they are, and whether their book is awesome or still needs a lot of work, they deserve their money’s worth.

That was the capper for me because Pam, someone I highly respect in the universe of Seattle writing, looked to me for help. I get a lot of positive feedback from the people I’ve done consultations for here at the conference, and from my paying clients as well, but to get a vote of confidence like that from Pam, well, that really left me smiling as I made my way out of the hotel for the evening.

August 01, 2009 06:21 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, David Forrer, Minju Chang, Joseph Finder, Pam Binder, Robert Dugoni

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PNWA Summer Writers Conference, Day 1

Well, I survived day one.

The 54th annual Summer Writers Conference, hosted by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, is in full swing! I had a wonderful time there last year as one attendee among many. I’m at the conference this year as a “Book Doctor” (that is, a editor who can tell you how to improve the writing and story-craft in your novel) rather than a starry-eyed hopeful novelist. Despite experiencing the conference from a different perspective, if today is any guide, this year I will also have a wonderful time.

I will, however, probably be twice as exhausted at the end of it as I was last year

Today was a half-day, with registration opening at 1:00, and conference sessions scheduled until the evening. I checked in a little before 1:00, and learned that not only was I going to be speaking on a panel of other book doctors who are also working the conference, the organizers also volunteered me to be the panel moderator. I suspect this is what I get for being the only local boy in the bunch, someone the organizers could be pretty sure would actually show up on time.

After checking in, I talked with three writers who had been assigned to me. That is also why my blog has been a little quiet the past several days: because I have been working furiously to finish reviewing the 25-page excerpts from the novels of 23 aspiring writers, and typing up my notes into something resembling cogent analysis with recommendations.

After finishing my half-hour sessions with today’s three “patients” I had a little break before the panel discussion started. Turns out it wasn’t much of a panel. There was only one other book doctor there besides me, a delightful lady named Kate Austin who drove down to Seattle from Vancouver, B.C. this morning. The other four book doctors were flying in from parts far and wide, so I was told, and just didn’t arrive in time.

Honestly, I think that was probably for the best, because with just two of us we were able to have a really nice, in-depth Q&A session with the audience members rather than a more formal panel discussion. By and large, the audience asked really good questions on pretty much every aspect of writing craft mentioned in the tag-cloud next to this blog post (and then some). Everyone was enjoying it so much we ended up running quite a bit over the allotted time. At the end of it I felt that Kate and I had established a real connection with the audience.

After the Q&A, I met up with a local writer friend of mine, and we adjourned to the hotel restaurant for dinner before returning for the evening keynote address by famous writer-guy Terry Brooks. He probably needs no introduction for anyone reading this blog, so I won’t. He gave a charming and pretty funny speech about how his writing career has affected his fame, fortune, friends, and fulfillment.

The end of the speech particularly resonated with me; he talked about how, for him, writing is the one thing that gives him the greatest sense of personal fulfillment. That the writing process itself, that sensation of losing yourself in the page while you’re writing, gives him an unmatchable sense of fulfillment.

I know that sensation, too, and probably so do you. But for me, embarking on this possibly mad quest to make a living as a freelance editor has a similar quality to it. It is hard, laborious work. But I get a charge out of reading unpublished novels that—if I can help them along a little or sometimes a lot—may someday be published. I get a sense of pride from helping writers improve their craft. And I definitely feel a sense of personal fulfillment from the simple act of taking my destiny into my own hands.

That’s something I never got from working a day job.

I turn 40 later this year. It may have taken nearly four decades, but I feel like I know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’ve finally realized that it’s up to me to make that happen.

July 31, 2009 06:03 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, Kate Austin, Terry Brooks, book doctor, fulfillment, quest, panel

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Novelists' black holes

This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.

Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.

But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.

Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.

I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.

Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.

I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.

It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.

Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.

"Country two-step” Pacing

These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.

It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.

What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.

But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.

"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots

These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.

If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”

I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.

Film Negative Plots

Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.

You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.

I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?

So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!

July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC

Tags: plot, hook, character, pacing, infodumps, backstory, flashbacks, bait-and-switch, PNWA, conference, show don't tell

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