Category Archives: Plot Development for writers

Ideas on structure and conflct in your fiction

Why “Start With the Action” Messes Up So Many Writers – by Janice Hardy…

This piece from @Janice_Hardy echoes some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: Start with conflict, not crisis. How people deal with a crisis is much more interesting than the crisis itself.

Apropos though of making sure *something* is “happening,” Hardy is right on that as well. In my experience as a reader it takes special genius to create a character so interesting I’ll listen to him or her THINK for pages and pages. As a mortal, I’ve found that setting up the story conflict in a scene built around the central characters gets me into the story so much more effectively. I’ve also learned that any introspective scene that goes on for more than a page–or even half a page–needs some other character to jump in and interrupt it.

So check out Hardy’s advice here. I think it’s spot on.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Fiction University:

Sometimes really great advice is anything but helpful.

If I took a poll for the most common writing advice, “start with the action” would make the list.

Which it should, as it’s great advice. But it’s also like saying, “show, don’t tell.” We know we ought to do it, but we don’t always know how, and those four words don’t help us with the beginnings of our novels.

This can be especially hard on new writers, because they might think they’re doing everything right, but still get negative feedback or even rejections on their manuscripts. “I do start with action,” they cry. “Can’t you see that car barreling off that cliff there? What do I have to do, blow up a planet?”

Well, no.

Maybe it’s the movie industry and all those summer blockbusters, but say “action scene” and most people envision something Michael Bay-ish—car chases…

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The Biggest Writing Craft Issue New Novelists Face, and 7 Ways to Avoid It. – by Anne R. Allen…

Thanks for more important advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen. I think I’m at a “chaos point” myself right now, but at least I do have that last scene in mind–like Anne recommends!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

We all have a writing craft issue or two…or three or four or five, no matter where we are in our careers. Yes, even professional authors who have written ten or more novels. I’m wrestling with some myself with my forthcoming Camilla book, Catfishing in America, which is still, alas, only half way there. It’s at that stage that Melodie Campbell called the “Chaos Point” in her wonderful post for us “My Novel is a Mess.”

Thing is—creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story.

One story.

Continue reading HERE

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4 Newbie Writer Mistakes that can Derail a Great Book Idea – by Anne R. Allen…

Every time I read one of Anne R. Allen’s columns, I learn and relearn so many valuable principles—and I just have to share. I’ve sort of learned a lot that she talks about in this piece (for example, not getting stuck on your first chapter, looking for advice too early, looking for advice from the wrong people), but these reminders are incredibly helpful as well as inspiring. What I need to hear most: In first drafts, the answer is “Just write.”

Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing Anne’s posts.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

You’ve got a fantastic idea for a novel. It’s been hanging around for quite a while, knocking inside your noggin. The idea keeps saying, “Let me out! Release me! Put me in a book!”

Maybe there’s a scene in your head that plays like a video, with every detail of the setting right there, as if it’s on a screen. You know those characters. They’re like real people to you.

But you’ve never had the time to write it all down.

Now you do.

So here you are, finally banging out that scene. And another. And pretty soon you’ve written 10,000, maybe 15,000 words of brilliant, deathless prose. It almost wrote itself. Wow. That was almost too easy.

It IS brilliant, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. Maybe what’s on the page isn’t quite as good it seemed when you were in the zone.

In fact, it could be terrible. What…

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5 Things I Relearned Starting a New Book

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway, like a writer starting a new book!

The right turn has to be here somewhere!

It’s been a while since I started a book from scratch.

One of my two latest ventures is the third volume in a mystery series I’ve been working on for some time. But the other is new—premise to hand-written scribbles to first keyboarding. I’m about 15,000 words in. And it’s taking off.

By taking off, I mean every time I finish a scene, the next one’s shaping up in my mind. I’m excited about sitting down to the draft every day. Zoooom.

Both of these plunges into new writing confirmed a few things I thought I remembered about starting a book. Other writers might find these experiences resonating with theirs.

Here’s what I know.

1) You must WRITE.

A lot of people advocate detailed outlines, but if the outline isn’t coming or not a natural move for you (I’m a pantser), I argue that you need only one element of your new book before you start putting words on a page: an idea. Something that’s been kicking at the edges of your mind to get out. You can carry this idea around, stroke it, dunk it in your morning coffee . . . but to give it body and breath, you must start to write. Writing teachers share an adage most credibly attributed to Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I wrote.” For reasons beyond my pay grade, the physical and mental process of actually writing triggers something that no other process can.

A writer with light bulbs overhead--and one going off!

2) Accept your “shitty first drafts.”

Listen to Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird. I have to remind myself of this every day. This tolerance for failure applies both to the whole novel and to those early “thinking” notes and stabs at dialogue or description. Not a word you write at this stage has to be good enough to go on the finished page. A lot of it is for you to know but never tell your readers (e.g., that your MC loved runny eggs when he was eight). You’re world-building, poking into corners you didn’t know were there. You’ll leave a lot of what you find behind, but it’s the finding that makes your world come alive.

A weird, writer-built world!

3) Set doable goals.

As much as I love writing, I personally do NOT need disincentives to do it. Nothing disincentivizes as much as feeling that I MUST complete a whole chapter at a sitting. People have different tricks to fend off procrastination. Sometimes I commit to filling a single notebook page. Or I set a timer for thirty minutes. During that thirty minutes, I must focus on the book. I’m allowed to reread the last session’s work or play with plot points, but before that timer goes off I must write something. Usually, when I stop, my mind’s at work, words still packed inside my pen for next time.

 

4) Allow incubation time.

This point goes with #3 above. Short sessions over the course of a day or a few days leave blank spaces in between for amazing things to happen. That perfect word you couldn’t find, that twist in a planned scene where your characters surprise you, that metaphor you just couldn’t sort out—when you come back from doing other things, they just fall onto the page. Don’t try to force this. Incubation is a mysterious process. Actually writing (see #1) gives it a place to do its thing.

A mysterious scene of ruined stone piers stretching into a foggy sea.

5) If a scene tells you it’s not working, listen.

Inevitable! Here are some strategies that have worked for me when a scene freezes up:

  • Make sure you’re writing a real scene. If you’re just lecturing your readers on a bunch of stuff you think they ought to know, you can get just as sick of the droning as they will. To get your blood rushing, toss your characters in a pile and let them thrash around.
  • Write sticky scenes or passages from multiple viewpoints or in multiple voices, just to see what happens—you’re not stuck with the fails. In my new book, I’d struggled to fire it up, but then, without warning (see #4), up popped a different voice, and the character who’d been stumble-tongued suddenly started talking. The whole book began to spread itself before me, just from that discovered voice.
  • Start at a different place in your story. Maybe you’re trying to pile up too much backstory rather than getting on with the chase. Or use the common device of starting at a crucial moment, then returning to the past to tell readers how your folks got themselves into this mess.
  • Start with conflict, not crisis. (This is the single best piece of fiction-writing advice I ever received.) Okay, your characters are about to go over a 100-foot waterfall in a leaky barrel. But once they hit the rocks below, you still have to figure out who the survivors are and what their story they’re living, and that’s where the work is. Jump-start with their argument the day before about why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it right, and whether they should do it at all. Their answers to those questions are the story, and the waterfall is just a device to slam them into their reasons for answering those questions the way they did.

A beautiful Florida river

I used to compare starting a book to finding my way into the center of one of those Florida cypress stands I liked to explore: you try what looks like a path, only to find your way blocked; you try another, ditto. Then, abruptly, the trees part before you, and you’re at the secret heart. The innards of a new book can just as hard to push into. It was nice to find these strategies working to clear the path once again.

What works for you when you’re starting a new book?

 

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Power Cutting from Someone Who Had To!

Pair of scissors for cutting text.

Bad news.

The very first line of your query has to tell the agent or editor how long your book is.

The execrable fact is that they expect certain genres to fall within certain limits.

When you’re an overwriter, like me, always able to stroke out one more metaphor, one more lilting phrase, one more neat character detail, hitting those word limits can be a challenge.

The problem intensifies when your writing groups and betas want “More! More!” Or when they push you to look at issues in your story that you glossed over before but now can’t leave unresolved.

So I faced querying a psychological-suspense manuscript at 107,000+ words and an accidental-detective mystery at 106,000+. I’m here to report that both books are now under 100,000 words.

Victory lap after cutting 6000+ words from my manuscript!
Victory Lap!

I’ve read enough submissions in writing groups to know that I’m not the only one in need of a repertoire of tricks (okay, strategies) for corralling a manuscript that has bolted for the hills. I needed “Power Cutting” skills.

I know what a lot of us would say: Cut 7,000 words?!? That will destroy my book! My brilliant writing will win over readers no matter how long it is.

Maybe, but you have to get an agent or editor to read your brilliant writing instead of thinking, “That sounds way too long.”

In fact, my efforts taught me strategies, many of them simple fixes, that actually improved my books rather than devastating them.

Not only will these strategies help you catch bad habits, they’ll force you to think hard about your story: What is it about, what belongs and what doesn’t? At least, that’s what Power Cutting did for me.

Here are some of the big-ticket things I learned.

Have a word-count goal. Until you make up your mind that you MUST cut, you won’t. Watching that number at the bottom of the screen sink and sink inspires!

Start, obviously, with familiar “fillers” like “very” and “really.” Read up on advice for recognizing useless words.

Cut hard now, reconsider later. You might cut too hard and scrape off too much voice, but storing your cuts in a separate, renamed file saves your original language, ready to reinstate after you’ve exceeded your goal.

Remember that no one but you knows what you took out. No one else will miss your golden imagery or your delicate dialogue exchange.

Cut via a complete read-through. You’ll spot problems like repetition that would not show up if you dove in at random, and you’ll maintain the continuity of your story.

Throughout, remember that clarity comes first. Always make sure, for example, that it’s clear who’s speaking before you cut a dialogue tag.

Ask first and last, what does this scene/paragraph/line add? Three cuts to look for:

  • Work you’ve already done. Yes, certain themes and events should be kept before your readers, but when you find yourself thinking, “Didn’t he already say this?”, he probably did. If there’s no new twist to a scene or interior monologue, it can go.
  • Dialogue exchanges that don’t further the plot. Banter for banter’s sake, no matter how scintillating, takes up real estate. Dialogue cuts better when it’s sharp.
  • Piled up details/metaphors/images. In literary fiction, you can interweave whole pages of lyrical description with luscious introspection. In commercial fiction, most paragraphs drag after more than one detail or image, no matter how powerful. Pick the one that does the most work in the fewest and/or most evocative words.

I found some more specific strategies as I progressed with my cutting. I’ll share some of those in an upcoming post.

Some colored pencils for cutting!
You’ll need a few of these.

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The Pros and Cons of Prologues

Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for making this visible! I’m of the “do what serves the story school,” and I hate hard-and-fast rules (“Agents hate prologues”). What about you? Weigh in!

Uninspired Writers

Prologues can be a contentious issue. Everybody has a different opinion on them. I’ve known of readers who love them, agents who hate them, and everything in between! The last novel I wrote started with a prologue, even though as a reader I’m not a huge fan of them. Sometimes you just have to do what works for your novel. But for anyone who’s not sure, I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of prologues below.

The Pros:

You can hook the reader
Prologues tend to be short and sweet, and so it gives you the opportunity to really hook the reader with a gritty opening. You don’t need to introduce the characters involved in any depth, which gives you the chance to create a real air of mystery.

Chance to use a different POV
The prologue doesn’t have to follow the pattern of the rest of your story…

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3 Critical Things You Won’t Learn in an MFA Program – by Susan DeFreitas…

Everyone should read this! I’ve learned from attending conferences that agents and editors read differently from writing-group colleagues. Until you’re critiqued by an actual agent, you can’t know what works for them in your opening pages. You won’t get that feedback from cold querying, but conferences provide opportunities to learn firsthand how what you’ve written is received.

DeFreitas provides a link as well to a good series on first novel pages. Dig in!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Jane Friedman site:

The pros and cons of an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing are widely debated: on one hand, such programs offer students the opportunity to work with accomplished authors, whose expertise (and endorsements) could make all the difference in publishing their first book. On the other hand, such programs often come with a hefty price tag, with fully funded options few and far between.

But regardless of whether you go for an MFA, some things are critical to establishing a career as an author that you probably don’t know, unless you’ve learned them the hard way (or you’ve worked in publishing).

I say this as someone who went for an MFA and then went on to establish a career as both an author and an editor. And this is information I want to circulate widely—first, because I know how hard it is to have…

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The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending

I like this discussion from Roz Morris (via Chris the Story Reading Ape) at Nail Your Novel. I’m struggling with revisions to endings and this post gives me some useful questions to ask.

Exposition! Eeek! In my case, not so much a sign that I didn’t “explain” earlier as that I worry that I didn’t explain clearly or explicitly enough. I’m converting an expository section to a scene between two of the characters left standing. Not sure yet if it’s working, but it’s better than what I had.

So make use of Roz’s advice if it pertains to you!

Nail Your Novel

It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem.  We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?

Here’s a handy test.

You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.

This is like story endings.

A good ending

First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.

When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.

It fails the arrest test.

Which is this:

It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events…

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A Small Riff on “Infinite Revision” (I’m an Expert!)

cresock deserted peer sea

I’ve been deep in revisions of two major Works-in-Progress, with a resultant and perhaps regrettable absence from the blogosphere. The process has led me to think about the pros and cons of “infinite revision”—the impulse to come back to a supposedly polished manuscript again and again and again (and again. . . . ad infinitum).

The impetus for these revisions is twofold: first, responses from my valuable beta readers; and second, experiences at two recent “pitch” events, both of which I recommend: the one-day WritingDayWorkshop held in Louisville in April and the Midwest Writers Workshop “Agent Fest,” a Friday-Saturday affair in May at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

The fact is, every time I attend a conference to pitch or get feedback from agents and editors (REAL agents and editors, mind you), I come home thinking that before I can respond to invitations to send materials, I really need to revise the darn book again!

Which of course means that my pages are sitting here, going nowhere, instead of in an agent’s inbox.

It seems worth asking whether the gains from the process of re-re-revising in response to these conference experiences are worth the inevitable delay. Surely there should come a point when I hit “save” for the last time and say “Enough!”

Well . . . yes. But. . . .

Two major eye-openers from this pitch-conference process have driven my compulsive rewriting, leading me to propose that maybe, just maybe, I’m not wasting my time.

“First-Page Reads”

First, both conferences included a “first-page read,” a feature that seems to be gaining popularity. In the “first-page read,” if you haven’t experienced one, conference attendees turn in, anonymously of course, the first page of their book. During the session, a moderator reads randomly selected submissions aloud.

At WDW, agents had copies to read along, a modification of the original format that I think made it easier for them to hone their responses in a rapid-fire, somewhat artificial setting. Agents raised hands or voices when they “would quit reading.” As one agent at MWW pointed out, ordinarily agents would have already glanced at the query, so they might be more tolerant of less than perfect submissions than when hearing a page cold (especially late in the evening after a long day). Even with those caveats, seeing how a panel of agents responded to my first page has, each time, been one of the most valuable conference experiences I can report.

“The Three-Minute Pitch”

Second, there is nothing like having to explain your book fast to a potentially skeptical listener to make you home in on that perennially vital question: what is this book about?

Think you know the main conflict, what’s at stake, how the main character changes, and why readers should care? Give yourself the three-minute test.

To meet the format requirements at MWW, I honed my pitches to ninety seconds. By the time I applied advice from my writing groups, they took barely a minute. And they both worked.

Things I Learned from Writing Conferences (This Time)

From the first-page read, I’ve distilled a “rule” much more important, it seems, than common prohibitions like “Avoid adverbs” or “Use strong verbs.”

Most obvious to everyone but slow-witted overachievers like me: BE CLEAR. Those agents wanted to be able to locate themselves in space and time in the company of a recognizable character. They wanted to be able to figure out, duh, what’s going on. And all this, of course, with only the tiniest touch of backstory. A hard lesson for those with unquenchable literary aspirations. Turns out all that energy devoted to haunting and mysterious hooks and complex, original metaphors would have been better spent on who, what, why, and where.

From the three-minute-pitch process, I’ve learned something else I sort of already knew but kept resisting: even the most complex plots, with the most tortured and nuanced characters, must have a throughline.

This rule is not in the least simple. It points to a tenet of structure as old as storytelling but one easy to overlook. Even if you are creating convoluted characters who wander all over their own emotions and tangle with fifty secondary characters and subplots, the book has to be about somebody who wants something and will pay in spades if he or she doesn’t get it.

That’s the throughline. Finding it is like that old story about chipping away parts of the marble that aren’t the statue. At some point, what your character wants, why she can’t get it, and what will happen if she doesn’t has to emerge from all the stuff that only supports your story, however important all that other stuff will ultimately turn out to be. The extras won’t work if they have nothing to hook onto.

Bottom Line: Sorry, You’re Not Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Any of Those Wonderful Folks

It’s tempting to think that our writing is so special, our creativity so rich, that any agent or editor who opens our file will be so entranced that clarity and throughlines are simply beside the point.

I fully acknowledge that there are literary geniuses for whom this is true. But two hard facts I’ve come to accept more and more: we first have to get our files into that agent’s inbox, and a clearly stated throughline is our best chance of slipping them in there. That throughline, which a three-minute pitch forced me to write, is also one of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where my book goes off track and w

Second, you are almost certainly not the genius who can transcend clarity once your first page is up for scrutiny by people who might actually pay you for the rest. Your genius—okay, my genius—will remain undiscovered if an agent or editor chooses “Move to Trash” before finishing that first page.

Quick Caveat before You Infinitely Revise

Choose your conferences carefully. It’s fun and often inspiring to attend lectures on how to do this or that in your story (“Make Your Characters Dynamic!” “Build Conflict!”). And it’s nice to chat with a “real author” who has agreed to critique your work

But conferences aren’t cheap. You can get “how-to” in spades online. And authors, bless us, don’t come to the chat thinking, “Would a publisher be willing to PAY FOR this book?”

With infinite revisions already behind me, I’ve found that someone who comes to my work with that question looming—who has made me do the work to answer it—is the only one who can definitively tell me whether I should revise again.

Okay, so when do you decide, “I’m never revising again”?

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Not Everyone Will Like Your Story — That Doesn’t Mean It’s a Bad Story

I kinda needed this. Maybe you will, too.

Novelty Revisions

One summer between college semesters, I wrote a book. I had only written several full-length novels before this, so it was not a publish-worthy book by any means. But I was proud of it. And after passing it around to a few friends who were genuinely interested in reading it (and did so — bless them!), I handed the book off to my mom.

She read it (bless her!) and gave it back to me. Of course I asked her what she thought of it, and because I was old enough at that point to handle the truth, she gave me her honest opinion.

“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” she said. “It was just too dark for me. Not my kind of book. But I’m proud of you.”

Aw. Thanks Mom.

This was the first — and certainly not the last — time I learned the difference between…

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