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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:


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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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

A month ago, I confessed to you all that I hadn’t finished a manuscript in the past three years. Finishing is a habit, just like writing, and I had gotten into a bad one. I set out into NaNoWriMo this year with the goal not only of getting my 50,000 words, but of finishing the damn manuscript.

And I did it.

I am convinced that the difference between this year and the past three is that I went into November not just with a plan for what the story was going to be, but with a plan for how I was going to finish it in the month. A story plotted out in 29 scenes. One scene per day, with a day’s worth of wiggle-room.

Lo and behold, it worked. Yesterday, I wrote the final scene. I didn’t even end up needing the wiggle room. And it shows in my wordcount graph, which I don’t think has ever been as steady-looking as this:

Sure, some days I wrote less, some days I wrote more. I missed a couple of Sundays and Turkey Day. But having a plan, knowing “I need to get to scene number 17 today,” kept everything on track. I knew there would be days when what I thought was one going to be one scene would morph into two, or I’d think of a new scene to add that I hadn’t when I was planning. And sure enough, that happened. But this year, it didn’t derail me because those additions did not change the cold fact that “I need to get to scene 17 today.”

Having that plan, holding myself to it, made all the difference.

All the pre-planning didn’t stifle my creativity for the writing phase. It didn’t shackle me into notions of the story that could not then change. All it did was put me in a position to say “sure, I can make this change now, but it means I’ll have to write more today, or tomorrow, to stay on track.”

I say this not to gloat (ok, maybe just a wee bit) but because if it worked for me, I don’t see why it can’t work for anybody. It’s so simple I kind of feel stupid even to explain it. It’s just math. How many scenes do you need? How many days do you have? Divide.

Why haven’t I been doing this all along?

This doesn’t mean I can write any novel in a month. What it means is that I now understand how I can write and finish any manuscript before any reasonable deadline. I like a NaNoWriMo-sized novel. It’s enough to be challenging, and to tell a good story. I have a list of other NaNoWriMo-sized novels to take on in future years. But I also have some in mind which are going to be bigger than that. Substantially bigger.

Those novels have felt daunting. And I suppose they still do. But from where I stand today, they feel less daunting than they did 30 days ago. Thirty days ago, those big projects still had the aura of chaos about them. They held a whiff of unwieldy danger, that I might not be able to wrangle them to the finish. But now, I know how to fix them within finite bounds before I begin writing. Now they become tractable.

Still big, but tractable.

Perhaps you are a bolder writer than I. For your sake, I hope so. But for anyone who has had trouble finishing a manuscript, perhaps taking your planning process this one final step may help.

November 30, 2011 19:03 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

Gentle readers, I have a confession.

I love NaNoWriMo. I have done it every year since 2005, and I have never failed to get my 50,000 words. Sometimes it has been close—like 2008, when post-election burnout induced me to slack of for twelve whole days after the annual Seattle-area Halloween midnight kickoff write-in. Boy did I have to write HARD after that to finish—but I’ve always made it. And I’m proud of that.

That’s not my confession, though. My confession is this: I haven’t finished a manuscript in three years. There, I said it.

That 2008 novel? Aside from blowing off 12 days out of the month, part of why it was so hard is that it wasn’t coming together. It felt forced. Fake. It was supposed to be this YA sci-fi/horror thing, and while I still think the core premise is a worthy one, it just didn’t have the overall feeling I was going for. I got to 50,005 words on November 30th, with basically just the novel’s big climax scene to go, and just... stopped. So close, but I just couldn’t make myself finish it on December 1st. I didn’t like it.

In 2009, I hit November 30th and 54,350 at about the 2/3 point in the novel, coincident with a part in the storyline I hadn’t planned out as carefully as other parts. I kind of lost steam through December and the holidays, and somehow, just never got back to it. But I still love that story, and I insist I’ll come back to it one day.

In 2010, I won NaNoWriMo with 53,587, again just shy of the novel’s climax. And trust me, it’s going to be an awesome climax. But last year my book doctoring business was really taking off, so when December came around I had to get back to my client work, and there went my evening writing time.

Blah, blah, blah. It’s always something. Those aren’t reasons for not finishing so much as excuses. I may just as well say “the dog ate my thumb-drive.”

Stephen King said something in On Writing that I can’t quote verbatim from memory, but goes something like this: the reason writers establish writing routines is because finishing things is a habit, and not finishing things is a habit, too. I have gotten myself into a pretty bad habit, here.

So this year, I am determined not only to win NaNoWriMo—I’ve got that habit squarely established. I know exactly what it takes to get to 50,000 words—but to finish as well.

This year, I have a plan.

I’ve always been a plotter. I can’t start NaNoWriMo without a solid outline for my story. It’s a defense against writer’s block, really, but hey. Whatever it takes, right? I can write my way to 50,000 words no problem, so long as I’ve got that plot outline to follow. What I’m apparently lousy at doing, though, is gauging how many words it will take me to convert that outline into a story.

Well, not words. The words aren’t the problem. It’s more like I’m not good at knowing how many scenes it will take. My natural scene length is around 2000 words, which is basically a day’s work, so when a section in my outline I thought would be one scene turns into three, suddenly I’m behind. Not behind in word count, but behind in pacing the novel to the month of November.

So this year, since I’ve got 30 days to work with, I’m plotting out the novel in 30 scenes. One scene per day. That should work, right? NaNoWriMo has this big conception of being done on November 30th. As an event, that’s when it ends. Over. Finished. Maybe your brain works differently (and I hope for your sake that it does), but for me the relief of being done with NaNoWriMo and having reached that 50,000 word goal seems to translate into a feeling of being done with the writing, too. Even if I’m not actually done with the writing. Then, come December 1st, it’s hard to get back in that groove.

But one important lesson NaNoWriMo has taught me, from the first three years when I was somehow able to finish the novel in December, was that writing a novel is hard work and to do it, you grab on to any source of motivation you can find to help you keep going. Anything at all.

Perhaps public shame will do it. I’m desperate, folks, so I’m putting this on my blog to keep myself honest. I’m pledging, out in the public sphere, to keep myself honest and get this puppy done this time. If it works, I’ll hit 50k without any trouble, and should actually finish the damn novel on November 30th.

That, pardon the pun, will be a novel experience. I wonder what it will feel like?

How about you? Now that I’ve spilled my guts, share your NaNoWriMo experiences down in the comments!

October 21, 2011 16:07 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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