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What I would have said, part one

Recently, I was approached to do an interview about book doctoring. As mine is a poorly understood corner of the editing world, I was delighted for the opportunity. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t work out. The reasons are neither here nor there, but the questions they wanted to ask me were good ones, and I’d still like to answer them. So, without further ado:

What is a book doctor?

It’s a clever moniker for “freelance developmental editor.” Which basically means I write book reports for a living. Extremely long, excruciatingly technical book reports, designed to help aspiring authors produce a much stronger next-draft of their novel.

When in the writing process should an author engage a book doctor?

Well, there’s the ideal, and then there’s the practical.

Ideally, people would contact me while they’re still outlining their book. Think about it this way: the easiest time to fix issues with the plot is before you’ve actually written the story. Once the story is set down word by laborious word, it becomes much harder to change. Fixing plot problems at that stage means maybe moving a scene here or there, adding a bridge scene, tweaking a few details.

That’s if you’re lucky. Far more commonly, though, fixing a plot issue means changing something deep in the bones of the story. It means altering characters, events, motivations, or other details which demand updates to many scenes. It can mean ripping out whole chunks of the book to re-draft some section of the plot. Worst case—but by no means a rare case—it means admitting that while the core story idea may be good, the plot as it stands is too much of a mess to fix, and then writing a new one from scratch.

Maybe that’s fine if you don’t have to worry about the concerns of making a living and tending to family. But the preponderance of writers I know do have to worry about those things. So ideally, you’ll get your plot problems worked out beforehand, and save yourself vast time and labor fixing problems that could have been avoided.

(And yes, what I just wrote amounts to a pro-plotter, anti-pantser screed. I’m not trying to dismiss the pantsers in the audience. It is certainly possible to fly by the seat of your pants and yet end up with a plot that holds together. But it is also true that the worst, most haphazard, nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen from clients have come from clients who don’t plot ahead of time.)

That’s the ideal. But in practice, almost nobody contacts me while they’re still outlining. Normally, people pop into my inbox only after they have manuscript in hand. That’s fine too. Generally that means you’ll be doing more rewriting than you might have liked, but it beats giving up on the novel. In my experience, the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

What makes for a good plot?

If I were to name anything specific (Conflict! Drama! ’Splosions!), someone would inevitably criticize that answer as being applicable only in certain genres. And they’d be right. There’s only one thing I know of that makes for a good plot, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Only one plotting principle that genuinely stands up whether you’re writing an action packed thriller, a cozy mystery, a memoir, or even a quiet, introspective literary piece:

Questions.

A good story is one that constantly raises questions in the reader’s mind. Curiosity, that human drive to know, to figure out, is at the heart of why readers engage with a book. If your narrative is constantly making us wonder about stuff—big stuff, little stuff—chances are we’ll be interested, and will keep turning those pages. After all, how else will we find the answers?

A small question—who’s ringing the doorbell? Who’s on the phone?—might only propel us a few sentences or maybe a paragraph further. That’s fine. That’s all it needs to do. A larger question can drive us to the end of the scene or chapter. The biggest questions—whodunit? Will James Bond save the world for democracy yet again?—those are the questions that propel whole stories.

A good plot provides a lot of questions, and then answers them when the time is right. A great plot does the same, but carefully manages the questions so that by the time one question has been answered, something else has come along to take its place. Or several things. A great plot weaves questions and answers together into a complex, rich pattern that keeps the reader totally hooked until the very end. Or even into a sequel…

What do new writers often need the most help with?

Two basic areas. Writing craft, and story craft.

Writing craft is all the stuff having to do with how you put words together into sentences. It’s about writing beautiful prose. New writers, no matter how much they wrote in school, almost always have a lot to learn in this area. So do I. It’s an endless art, and I’m convinced it is always possible to improve one’s writing. Usually, the greater fraction of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see things in their writing that aren’t so great, and explaining how to fix them.

From my own perspective, I’ve been writing novel-length fiction for close to a decade now. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Spending my days analyzing my clients’ writing and explaining to them how to improve it has certainly helped make me a better writer too. But even now, I still find new things in my clients’ manuscripts that help me understand the craft of writing better. It never ends. Nor, I think, should it. How sad would it be, to know you could not be better than you are?

Story craft is the other side of the novelist’s coin. It’s everything having to do with constructing a great plot. Raising questions is part of it, but it’s also about setups and events and conflicts and character motivations and surprises. All that stuff.

But here’s the thing. Most new writers don’t understand that writing craft and story craft are distinct crafts. They are wholly separate skill sets. I’ve seen beautiful prose wrapped around some truly awful plots. And I’ve seen the clumsiest prose imaginable hiding a corker of a plot inside. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story.

Most writers don’t understand this. And really, why should they? When, in most of our lives, are we ever exposed to story craft as a distinct skill? Not in grade school or high school, that’s for sure. Or at least, not in the dark ages of the 1980s when I was in school. Essay structure? Sure. Story structure? Not so much. Thus, another healthy chunk of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see what is and isn’t working in their plot, and offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Click here for part two

August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, plot, plotting, outline, curiosity, questions, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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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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