Filling Out that Early Draft of Your Book

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hungry_babyNovels arrive, like babies, at expected weights. A writer who’s poked around websites or attended conferences knows the numbers. It’s tough to consider anything under 60,000 words a novel. The spot that most agents like to see for a debut novel is about 80,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy writers can go as high as 120,000 and get a commercial deal.

But what if you’re 20,000 words short of even the 60K? How do you look for what that early draft of your book needs in order to grow to term, like babies do? It’s tough for a preemie to make it in the world, in the same way that a small book will scuffle to make an impact. Where do you look to fatten up that early draft?

Character is usually the broad-brush answer. Early versions of novels exist in the most complete fashion inside the writer’s head. You can see your hero, the story’s villain, all the trusty sidekicks and baffled authority figures, the mentor and the confidants. The question becomes, do your readers know them like you do? I like to tell writers that if it’s not on the page, then it’s probably not in the story.

Motives: I need to know what your main character wants desperately. I want to see the achievement or the object or the relationship that leaves a hole in their heart, because it’s missing. You can show me this in the part of the story where the story starts. Pixar calls this the “Every day…” part of the writing. I call it Life as Your Character Knows It. If at all possible, try to show that “Every day” instead of telling it to me.

Settings: It can be tempting to paint each loving detail of a house, a shop, a town, or a beloved car. In the same way, your early draft writing can linger on the physical details of significant characters. These details are only important to the story if they keep showing readers that missing element your hero wants. How does the hero feel about the peeling paint on the windowsills? Can you show me that feeling in a scene? There’s a great exercise called the Character of Setting, where details for descriptions are chosen based on what the feeling of the character is at that moment of the story.

Early drafts of novels often need to be unpacked, like the old sea monkey kits that would arrive from the cereal box companies. (That’s a Boomer reference if ever there was one. You used an eyedropper of water.) You drop emotions onto the little moments in your story. You slow down the narrative progress and linger over the sensory moments. Your early draft, if it’s short, doesn’t have to rush toward one event after the next. Plot is the events that happen in a book. Story is what makes the events matter. You can only create the meaning for a book if I understand the characters’ hearts.

If your characters start talking to each other in an early draft, that’s a fine spot to expand the sea monkeys. Conflict drives all lively dialogue. Let me see a bit of battle, confusion, or misunderstanding of one another while the characters sort things out in talk. In the best of scenes, there’s action to provide counterpoint to the talking.

History: Resist this if you can. Flashbacks are tolerable to a point, but what’s happening in the now of the story is the most important thing to a reader. Extended explanations to recount events about why something is significant are often shortcuts. Telling has a valuable place in story creation. Showing is more riveting, and it provides a hard-wired magnet for attention of the reader. Telling compresses time and scoots us through the story’s slow spots. Showing lets us walk through the garden with eyes on every flower.

Keeping your main character’s yearning in every part of the story will give your early draft the food it needs to grow to term. Some writers have to cut back when they get to later drafts. Some need to make more events take place, to cut back on the interior voice of the book and get out of the heads of characters. But for many an early draft, showing the character’s desires and fears, their hidden shame and forbidden joy, is the best nourishment to make it grow.

The Power of Prepositional Phrases

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DriveTrainUsing prepositional phrases in our writing is a direct way to the drive train of a storytelling. “After that, and for the next several years” acts like a time machine in the reader’s mind. You’ll see this used in movies and TV, too. The words “Nine Months Later” appeared on the screen during The Imitation Game. Immediately, we  in the audience could make that leap to a moment when many things had changed.

A favorite writing craft book of mine, “Now Write!” shows how to use prepositional phrases as powerful drivers in a story. The first step in this book’s exercise can be adapted to render a memory from a protagonist’s childhood story. The four-step exercise in “Moving Through Time” by Nancy Reisman requires only four paragraphs to experience the power of a preposition.

  1. A moment from childhood rendered in precise detail
  2. Pushing the writing toward summary with a prepositional phrase like “In the next five years,”
  3. Starting with a line of dialogue that moves into scene, increasing the intensity
  4. Using another prepositional phrase like “After that, in the months that followed” to push the writing to the larger view of the story, again toward summary.

This is also useful for developing characters. Their lives are journeys, after all. Using these phrases puts fuel into the story’s engine.

Readers Want Plot. Accept It. Thrust It Into The Heart of Your Stories.

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Over at Writer Unboxed, Dave King advises us all to embrace the power to make things happen in our books and stories. Beauty in the writing is grand, yes. But the level of satisfaction — more important, the attraction to readers — rests upon things happening.

buffyIt’s so easy to go the other direction and make the world’s most exquisite sentences, paragraphs, the nuance of metaphor and simile dancing across our pages. You need good prose. But to grab readers you need a story — told through events we see, then seeing a character’s reactions to those actions.

King says, about one beautiful New Yorker story

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He goes on with specific praise for Whedon, one of the great storytellers of our time. Have a look at the article at Unboxed to see more.

Include action. Great books are plot plus story. Make readers want to pass along your book, and tell a friend how much fun it was to experience

How to Start a Memoir

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WritingWellWilliam Zissner, a giant in the nonfiction writing world and the author of On Writing Well, gives us the most simple advice. From an essay of his in 2006, on the American Scholar website.

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

Of course, the “putting together” the late, great Zissner describes can be one of the most creative aspects of this project. But until you have pieces, you can only imagine what your memoir will say, or hear the voice that will be telling the tale. You must be patient and write awhile, to begin.

Serve the drama first

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The right set of facts are those that serve the drama of the story. We read and watch documentaries to educate ourselves. If we’re lucky, they entertain us. This surfaced during a chat about the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson — the Carl Sagan of the new generation’s Cosmos — and how much he dislikes the movie Gravity.

But any dramatic feature that fails to entertain, because it gets busy teaching us physics — that’s a misguided effort. Listening to him on Fresh Air (especially at the 30:00 mark calculating his response time to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show questions), will give you an insight into how and why Tyson became the man he is today.

It’s hard to imagine the original Carl Sagan, who wrote the orginal Cosmos series, being so persnickety about such details as presented in a drama. Along with his wife, he wrote the novel Contact, which was adapted into a stellar movie. I doubt Tyson will be authoring novels, but everybody can learn something new. Even if it’s just storytelling basics.

Haiku Deck love most

I assembled my first Haiku slide deck today, using this subject as a starting point. (Click on the image above to see the deck, a summary of what makes writing effective.) Yes, it’s what I’ve preached since I started the Workshop: attend to Meaning, Sense, and Clarity. As artists, we make meaning. We’re driven to this mission, cannot stand a life without meaning-making.

And as readers we care the most about drama. Miss a point of technology or history and it might spoil that moment of a story. Stumble while creating the drama — because you’re too busy attending to the laws of physics — and you might as well be producing a documentary, or writing a nonfiction book.

The same rules apply to writing stories about time travel. Rian Johnson wrote Looper, one of the best time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. When I heard Johnson talk at the Austin Film Festival about writing time travel, he agreed with fellow screenwriter Robert Orci, co-writer of the Star Trek reboot. Nobody knows how the physics of time travel work. But as humans, we recognize and connect through drama.

Respect the science, sure. But revere the storytelling.

3 Steps to Calculate Showing and Telling

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scene-structure bickhamA writing student of mine has asked more than once in class, “I am looking for a guideline on scene, to sequel, to narrative for my writing.” Whether it’s creative non-fiction (like a memoir), or a short story or even a novel, there are no magic formulas as in screenwriting. Writing movies can be as rigid as you’d like to follow, with expected major plot points coming at 30 pages, and again at 60. The whole thing needs to be written between 90 and 120 pages.

But if you’re working outside the realm of writing movies — and screenplays can be a powerful experience to teach story structure — you’ve got to decide for yourself what’s effective for these ratios. You have a key reader look at your mix for a chapter, or a workshop group. You read it aloud to yourself.

The mix? You can single-space it printed, then color-code with a highlighter. Blue for narrative — the telling or prelude or exposition. Yellow for dialogue and scene — where two or more people try to solve a problem, or a person struggles to accomplish a goal.

Then green for what Jack Bickham calls sequel. In his fine textbook Scene & Structure, Bickham describes sequel as the writing

…that begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struck by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a period of sheer emotion, followed sooner or later by a period of thought — which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal just selected.

Emotion to thought, then onward to new action. Bickham goes on to point out that once you have the action selected, you add a character or a force to oppose it. You get conflict. We crave conflict as readers. And so you’re now into the next scene. (It’s Chapter 7, Linking Your Scenes, in Bickham’s essential book.) More

Sometimes you structure your own instruction

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Here in Austin there’s a good Writer’s League, its HQ here with operations across Texas. But down at the HQ this month a novelist (with three published, one on the way) showed off one of the big elements of writing that came up missing in her MFA program. Despite all the other fundamentals of craft taught, structure was missing.

Her MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana taught her all about dialogue, point of view, and character, she explains, but nothing about structure.

It’s not that surprising that structure would fall out of the syllabus of a state college’s fine arts masters writing program. Structure is the hardest — no, most complex and challenging part of writing a novel. I recommend books to the students in The Writer’s Workshop on the topic, many written by screenplay savants. Robert McKee’s Story is among the most thorough, but my, it is thick with terms an MFA storyteller might find brand new. I keep coming back to it like studying a historic text. There’s a terrific audio version of the book narrated by the author himself, who gives blistering weekend seminars on screenwriting. (For a brilliant and funny take on the advice from the movie Adapation, a story about a fledgling screenwriter writing a movie, have a look at this NSFW version.)

There’s also John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Truby is a story consultant in Hollywood whose students, we’re told in the book’s back-cover blurb, wrote Sleepless in Seattle, Shrek and Scream. Here’s a takeaway: A story can be condensed into a theme line, like this from Citizen Kane: A man who tries to force everyone to love him ends up alone. Then you split this theme into oppositions, because in drama you would like conflict and something for the heroine to pursue and win. Much later in the process you are deciding on plot points to support that dramatic journey, the arc as they like to call it.

Index cards are superior tools once you can decide your scenes, or snapshots of the big story. I like Scrivener, (from a software tool for both the Mac and now Windows, to give me computer-based cards I can arrange and then flesh out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Perhaps the biggest point to take away is that an MFA will not give you a complete education on creating fiction. We teach in workshops to people who are already well-educated in fine arts, but need practical guidance on essentials — skills the college left them to structure for themselves.

Storytelling out of order

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The non-linear story can be a powerful choice in writing. 500 Days of Summer, a great romantic-drama/comedy, made me pay attention more closely last night because it hops among 500 days of memories in a relationship. Linear, chronological stories set our expectations for when the important stuff happens. The tension can slack off. Non-linear lets us enjoy dessert before the salad course arrives. (Or it makes us wash the dishes before the entree.)

Some people complained about the movie’s construction, but Roger Ebert says this is how we remember relationships anyway: out of order, the painful right alongside the good. It takes skill to put together a story this way, either to make it clear where you’re at in the chronology, or write it so well (as in the movie) that the audience/reader doesn’t care. The beauty of the language engages your readers.

The writing also uses the power of the movie — the image — to establish character instantly. One favorite part from the movie, a cunning example of surprising and authentic character development:

Teenage Summer stares at herself in the mirror. Her hair extends down to her lower back.

NARRATOR: Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long blonde hair.

She picks up scissors from the counter and begins to slice.

NARRATOR: The second was how easily she could cut it off… And feel nothing.

(How can you tell this was a first draft? Well, our actress in the movie is a brunette…)

Some movies use voiceover or narration to explain away a confusing plot. Not this one. The Narrator gives us the omniscient voice to set the stage of a character’s development, or act as a Greek chorus. If you’re interested in reading the movie’s first draft, you can download it.

Know what you’re aiming at in your war

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In his new book The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell teaches us that a story’s premise must be supported by fresh, solid scenes. Bell, who’s also written suspense novels and the great Plot and Structure, reminds us of fundamentals: make your dialogue flow; cut or hide exposition (delay it if you can, eliminate what’s not working); flip the cliched situation (so a big-rig truck driver might be a woman.)

But in his scene summary, Bell reminds us that every scene needs to have a thing it is aimed at — a bull’s eye. It’s a moment or an exchange, he says.

A bull’s eye can be a few lines of dialogue that turn the action around or reveal something striking. It can be as subtle as a moment of realization, or explicit as a gunshot to the heart. Many times, it is found in the last paragraph or two.

In the Writer’s Workshop Tuesday sessions, we have an exercise where we’re given the last line of a piece of writing, then invited to write toward that line. Bell says that a scene that doesn’t have a bulls-eye should be cut or rewritten.

We bring away writings of 300-500 words from our Tuesday sessions, scenes or sections that might be a little off target in our first draft. That’s what rewriting is for.

Simple language leads to perfect stories

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It’s easy to find praise for simple things in life. But writing seems to evoke the opposite effect in building sentences, paragraphs, sections and stories. We want to be noticed with our writing. However, if you look underneath that wish you should find the desire to be heard and remembered. Simple language delivers those two results. Simple lets the story rule the reader’s attention.

Last night in our weekly Writer’s Workshop we enjoyed Blackberries, a simple short story that our member Kathleen Clark showed me over our summer break. The Leslie Norris sudden fiction story — another name for a short-short, under 1,000 words — has few sentences that run beyond 15 words. Despite the brevity, the language is rich in feeling and detail. Here’s one of the few, written about a blackberry vine.

His father showed him a bramble, hard with thorns, its leaves just beginning to color into autumn, its long runners dry and brittle on the grass.

Just count the verbs to see why this sentence works so simply. Show. Hard. Color. Even the adjectives are doing verb work, like dry, or waxing specific with an action, like brittle. The nouns swing into action: bramble, thorns, leaves, runners, grass. Of 26 words, 10 breathe simple life into this writing. (Kathleen called the story “perfect.” I struggle to find any reason to disagree.)

Blackberries, like many other stories in Sudden Fiction International, runs on three main characters and two minor players across the space of four printed pages. The writing doesn’t shy away from using variations of the verb “to be” in various tenses. Norris considers that advice, of using better verbs than be or were, but uses these simplest verbs along with others. Much of the simplest writing does.

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