Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Story Core

Today’s classic was originally posted on November 17, 2011. 

A few days ago, I came across some advice that has transformed the way I’m thinking about my current WIP. I found an interview with Robert McKee (who’s famous for his book, webseminars, etc. on screenwriting) where he says this:

Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of what is known as an “Object of Desire,” that which they feel they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself.

I knew, of course, about the concept of an “inciting incident”–that thing that happens that starts the hero or heroine on their journey, the thing that sets this particular day off from all other days. However, I’d been thinking of it more in terms of the “call to action” that takes place in the classic hero’s quest.  And I knew that my character had to want something–and that there had to be something that prevented her from achieving what she wanted.

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But I find that this idea of balance clarifies my thinking about the core of the story itself: why is the MC’s life out of balance? What triggered this imbalance? (Was it a slow evolution or something that happened suddenly, catastrophically). In short, it’s not enough for the character to want something–she has to want something because it will restore something to her life that she feels that it lacks.

For example, in the lovely children’s book The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky is continually searching for the “higher power” that she hears people talking about in the various twelve-step recovery programs that she eavesdrops on. Her search is intensified when she begins to fear that her guardian, Brigitte, is going to leave her and go back to France. Once this fear develops, she searches for a way to keep Brigitte in Hard Pan (pop. 43).

Sometimes this imbalance is dramatic: the death of someone in the MC’s life, a divorce, a break-up. Sometimes, though, it can be as simple (and complicated!) as falling in love, realizing something unwanted about yourself, or feeling like an outsider.

So now I’m back to another revision–but one I feel hopeful about, because I feel like I’m finally peeling away some of the issues that are holding the story back. I know what needs to happen (if not how it happens). (Also, McKee reminds me that 90% of what we write is crap–and that’s why we revise.)

What about you? What tricks have you discovered for unearthing the core of your story? And what sustains you as you revise?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available. The sequel, LOST CROW CONSPIRACY, comes out March 27.

Creating Delicious Stories

My husband and I are big fans of The Great British Baking Show—one of the biggest payoffs is seeing the expressions of bliss on the judges’ faces when a baker nails a particularly difficult bake (as Mary Berry might say, the bake was “scrummy”). As writers, we’re looking for this same reaction in readers—we want our stories to be delicious.

There are lots of different elements that go into this, of course, but as I’m knee-deep in revisions at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how this magic happens in revision. Some of it, of course, is making sure that each scene serves the overall purpose of the story (characterization, plot, setting, etc.). But a serviceable cake is just that—serviceable. It’s not necessarily delicious.

I think one key to a delicious book is building in what Susan Dennard calls “cookies”: “those sparks in a story that makes you WANT to write. It’s the romantic tension you love and just can’t wait to reach. It’s the high-action fight you’re itching to write or the awesome sneakiness of your villain. It is basically the reason you wanted to write THIS book at THIS moment.” For Dennard, these are moments that you plan in as you’re plotting your story, as a motivation to keep writing and as a guide to awesome stories. Dennard argues that every scene needs to be a cookie scene, and I think she’s right.

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But the idea of cookies—something delightful in each scene—isn’t just helpful as you’re drafting, but as you revise. There’s a story that P.G. Wodehouse, comic writer extraordinaire, used to post pages of his novel around the room as he revised, and then he’d mark up each page to make sure that each page had something funny. And while not all of us are comic writers, I think we can all borrow something from this idea.

We need to find the thing that makes our stories delicious to our readers (often it’s the same thing that makes the story sparkle for us)—and then make sure each scene (better yet, each page) has something rewarding for readers. Maybe it’s a particularly sharp bit of dialogue. Maybe it’s a romantic moment, or a humorous one. Maybe it’s a setting that inspires wonder.

Not all of these moments have to be huge ones—not every scene can be that intense, almost-kiss that leaves readers swooning (not unless you want to gradually rob that scene of its impact)—but they do have to be there. Scenes that bore you as a writer are generally scenes that are going to bore your reader.

As I’m revising, I find that this focus—looking for the bits I find delightful and pruning the rest—is helping me to see more clearly which scenes are critical to the story, and which are just structure, a method to get from point A to point B.

Here’s hoping that the final “bake” is as delicious as I envision!

What are some of your favorite revision tricks?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

Goals and Revising in 2018

Happy New Year! I hope 2018 is a year full of joy and peace for all of us!

Like many others, around this time of year I find myself thinking back on the last year, thinking about what worked out well for me, what turned out…less well, and how I would like things to go better in the future. It recently occurred to me how similar this approach to my life is to the act of revising.

Now, I have always preferred drafting to revising. I love the freedom to do whatever I want in a story, to go wherever I want with it, and that push to get the words on the page. But revision? Not so much. I’ve struggled to know how to approach revision and what to even do with my words once they are on the page.

In the last couple of years, I’ve pushed myself to try to learn to revise better and, although it’s slower than I would sometimes like, I am making progress. Good progress.

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There are several similarities between making goals and progress in my personal life and making improvements to a manuscript. Here are three of the ones that have really stood out to me as I’ve tried to learn to revise better:

1. Slow down and take time to think.

I draft pretty quickly. I get the words down on the page in a happy, slapdash sort of way and don’t worry too much about whether a scene needs to be in the story or if the motivations make sense or any of that.

When I revise, though, I need to slow down and take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach. Same with making life goals. If I decide I want to exercise every day, I need to figure out how that will fit with the rest of the moving parts of my life. If I decide to add a scene or a character or a subplot to my story, I also have to consider how those changes will affect the rest of my story. I can’t just bulldoze my way through without taking the time to think or I end up with the same problems with my next draft.

2. Look at the whole.

When I decide to make changes in my life, I have to step back and take an honest—and realistic—look at how I’m doing. Both the good and the bad. Maybe I do need to eat more vegetables and eat less sugar and drink more water…but I’m also doing great at working out every week. Making sure to recognize the good in both my life and my story helps me to keep going and to not give up in despair because, frankly, I don’t particularly like most vegetables.

Sometimes it’s so easy to look at a project that needs revising and make a seemingly endless list of everything that’s wrong with it. But there are good things, too! There always are. Look for them, for the places where your writing does what you wanted it to, and try to bring the rest up to that level.

3. Remember it’s your life/story.

One of the hardest things for me to learn—and remember—in life and writing is that I will never be able to make everyone happy. Just as I can’t base my New Year’s Resolutions on what my neighbor needs to do, I can’t revise based on the issues I see in someone else’s book. And just as I shouldn’t base my goals on what I think my neighbor thinks I ought to do, I shouldn’t revise my story to fit someone else’s notion of what my book should be.

In the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, the director chose to show in-scene a small incident between Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas. Maria was so undone by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s insistence on the only right way to fold clothing that she tried to repack all her boxes. Elizabeth responded by telling Maria that it was her luggage and that Lady Catherine would never know.

It’s your book. Revise it to match your image for it, not Lady Catherine’s.

Happy revising in 2018!

What about you? What tips do you have for approaching a revision? 

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Feedback

We are so excited to welcome John Scovill as our newest contributor! 

I have many different identities, like many of you who read this. If you were to check out my Twitter, you would see those identities listed. First, I am a father of three awesome and rambunctious kids, but after that, I am a teacher.

Before my current position, I taught sixth grade language arts for two years and was able to read a plethora of writing. I also gave feedback to thousands of students. Educational researcher John Hattie says that, “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” Can you think of a time when feedback given to you was either negative or positive?

As writers, we give feedback to our peers in our writing groups or just friends who asks, “Can you read this?” But do we really know if one, our feedback is effective and two, if our feedback is moving the writer in a positive or negative way? Just know that feedback is a “consequence” of performance.

Children and adults need three positive contacts to erase one negative. This could also be true for feedback.

I have had many instances being on the receiving end of feedback. As a new writer, it is always comforting to know that my published writing friends have self-doubts about their writing. I know that I am not alone.

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Recently, I was given two “rounds” of feedback on two different pieces of writing. I even paid for this feedback. These were my two pieces of feedback:

Feedback One: The reader read two pages (I could tell because there were no scribbles on the remaining three pages), asked me a few questions (I admit, I have a hard time talking about my writing), and said, “you aren’t going home and rewriting, you are going home and outlining.” Okay, thanks for the direction at $40. How do I outline? Where do I start? What should I ditch? What should I save? Where is my starting point? Is there a nugget of hope in this writing? No answers. I was disappointed.

Feedback Two: After a few weeks, I get an email with corrections and a few thoughts in parts. All were negative. Again, no little nugget of hope.

After this, I felt like giving up. My writing is horrible. Why even try. I am not going to any more writing conferences until I can figure this out. These were the thoughts I was having.

I talked to a friend recently who has been on a long road to publication and has shown that perseverance is key, said, “I don’t let people read my writing. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I write. And maybe I will show it to at least two other knowledgeable people that know me. That’s it. When too many people look at your writing, it doesn’t give you any direction as to where to go.”

I loved this and have taken it to heart.

Many people don’t know how to give proper, helpful, useful feedback. Many people don’t have the time, nor are invested in the story you are writing to truly care about the feedback they give.

Effective feedback must answer three major questions: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be taken to make better progress?)

Some ideas to think about with each question:

Where am I going?

How is the character reaching his/her goal? What is the goal of the character? What is my goal as a writer? What problem does the character have?

How am I going?

What progress is the character making towards reaching their goal? What is my progress in reaching my goal? How is the character going to reach their goal(s)? What shifts do I need to make to enable the character to reach the end goal, or little goals along the way?

Where to next?

As the writer, what plot holes or lagging areas do I need to address? Does a twelve- year-old actually say this or think this way? How can I fix it? What goals can I make as a writer to fix these mistakes and move the story forward?

Feedback shouldn’t discourage the writer from writing, but move the writer along with their writing. If you don’t have the time, energy, or you’re not invested in the writing or the writer, please don’t offer feedback (even for money), because feedback should offer answers and hope for the writer.

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John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at lit360degrees@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnlit360

The Human Revision

Revision is a necessary evil when it comes to writing. You plow through the rough draft only to edit and revise until what you started with is barely recognizable, but considerably better. We have to do this for the betterment of the story, the craft. Yet do we do the same with ourselves?

Renewal is great for the soul and the body making for a better you. A better you makes for a better writer. Don’t wait for the new year. A new beginning can start at any time. Here are a few ways to renew yourself for the betterment of you.

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Breathe

Find time in your day, even if it’s a small moment, that’s just for you. Sit in the car before work and jam out to a song you love, lay claim to the shower for ten minutes when you get home, grab a cup of coffee from a local coffee shop. Something. Anything that is just for you! Reconnect with you.

Break Away From Normal

It’s easy to fall into habits to the point where if one thing falls out of place your whole day is ruined. But let’s turn that around. Let a little change be for the good. If you read romance take a stroll down fantasy lane. Try a show you never would have tried before. Shop at a different store. Doing one new thing can help rewire your mind and help you look at your writing in a new way.

Meditate

Relax and empty your mind. Find a quote or have an ideal to focus on throughout the day. Create your safe space in your head and carry it with you through the trials of the day.

Choose Your Happiness

Choose to be happy and make it so. Easy to say but happiness is totally a decision. And one that is certainly better than the alternative.

So as Christmas is around the corner (at the time of this writing) remember the best gift you can give to others and yourself is a better you. Renew yourself daily. Revise who you are until your story is perfected. Until next time have a writeous day!

The Time & Place for BIG WORDS

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor Patricia Friedrich! 

In a recent workshop with the wonderfully talented Lisa Cron, whose book Story Genius I had read, I learned something about my love of big words. It turns out that, whereas my big words had helped me in my academic career, they were at times hurting me in my fiction one. It all had to do with anesthetizing the brain!

You see, my academic work often takes me to the analytical side of things. When I am writing research, I explain my claims, provide examples, and then introduce evidence from studies I have conducted. In that context, I will have succeeded if I wake up the analytical areas of the brain of my readers to have them consider whether they agree with me or have counterarguments that challenge my claims. It is all very logical, and big words, the ones I have cultivated over a lifetime of loving and studying language, feel right at home in that context. I am a linguist by training, and few things make me as intrigued as finding a new word and then as content as using it in context myself—discovering its place and time of origin ranks pretty high too.

The problem started when I brought my over-analytical mind and big words into fiction, and this is where Lisa Cron’s amazing insights came into play. Lisa describes how stories speak directly to our survival instinct, how they provide us with experiential knowledge for future reference. However, I first approached fiction through the lenses of my command of language and not my understanding of story or human beings’ innate instinct to use stories as roadmaps in their own lives. I could write great, grammatically accurate sentences. I could access a large vocabulary. For crying out loud, I write linguistic theory! All I had to do was put it all together in stories, and I would dazzle everyone with my command of the English Language.

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Only they weren’t dazzled. They were pulled from the story by all the big words I chose and complex sentence structures I created. Lisa’s work taught me that great fiction works because it anesthetizes the part of the brain that performs analytical tasks, the very ones I was waking up with my words as powerfully as if I was using a big alarm clock. The part that should light up instead, is the one hungry for story, the one that experiences story as if it were real. The one that allows you to smile, cry, and feel empathy while the words in front of you disappear. When I used too many of my big words, I caused my readers to fall out of total identification with my characters. They could not be in 1920s Brazil or Victorian England if they were trying to figure out what argute or ineffable meant. Shrewd and indescribable would have done just fine (or better yet, I could have just shown them shrewd and indescribable in the first place).

It turns out in fiction, as in life, sometimes less is more. I redirected my love of language to creating beautiful description and vivid imagery that can be both simple and elegant at the same time. I learned the power of everyday words and sentences of different lengths. I started feeling joy at focusing on the story and letting language serve it rather than the other way around. And when the pull of old habits, as well as the thrill of a new complicated word, takes me to lexical items or multi-subordinated sentences, I apply them to my analytical writing where they can shine.

 

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.