Tag Archives: story structure

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”?

4 Comments

Filed under Finding agents, Learning to write, literary fiction, looking for editors, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, Publishing, Works in progress, Writers' conferences

What Breaks Your Book

Here’s a terrific follow-up to an earlier post of mine, “Why I Quit Reading Your Book.” The Red Ant hits some specifics that resonate for me. Especially this one, which addresses a problem I’ve seen over and over:

So you have a great plot and good, strong characters (quirky individuals or admirable, real people), and now… nothing keeps happening. The characters chat, hang out, look at the landscape, wait for the curtain to go up so the show can start… how long will you keep the reader waiting?

Folks, something has to happen—fast. Not necessarily a bomb going off, but something. Some really great advice from a conference I attended: Start with conflict, not crisis. Get those characters arguing about a challenge or a problem that’s got to be taken care of. They’ll start talking, and you and your readers (me, at least) will soon be taking sides!

I also echo the points about finding the balance between too much and too little world-building. Exposition and description piled up in the first pages are static. Get people doing things, and let their world settle into place around them.
More great advice in this post. Check it out!

the red ant

I just came across this post again:

https://justcanthelpwriting.com/2016/01/30/why-i-quit-reading-your-book/

Back then I thought she had nailed it.  I still think she does, as do some of the commentators.  I agree with Roughseas that it’s more than just Voice; but I also agree with Virginia, there has to be Voice.

In the Land of Fairies and Storytellers

Ireland is amazing.  (I knew it would be.)

Almost everyone I encounter here is a natural storyteller.  So it’s hard to understand, if this comes so natural to people here, how others can struggle to write so it engages the reader.

You write a story the way you would tell it to a crowd of avid listeners.

Those passages that make you blush?  Strike them from the manuscript!  The parts where your audience starts yawning and looking around?  You know you’ve lost them, you need to intensify the writing.  Maybe lie lower on the description…

View original post 1,167 more words

1 Comment

October 19, 2018 · 7:23 pm

A Lesson in First Pages!

A story hook is like strange headlights coming at you out of the dark on a lonely road. What lies ahead?

A story hook is like those headlights coming at you. What lies ahead?

I often get good posts from Writer Unboxed, and today’s example is a recurring feature of the site called “Flog a Pro.” Monthly contributor Ray Rhamey invites readers to vote the first page of a current bestseller up or down: would you turn the page?

I’m sharing the most recent candidate because it speaks with particular eloquence to an issue I’ve been encountering in the writing groups I haunt. Although I understand the reasons a few commenters voted no (e.g., snarky narrator, too much alliteration), I’d vote “yes” on this sample for one simple reason: it has a hook.

Wait! Doesn’t everybody know that the first page, or at least the first chapter, of a novel has to have a hook?

Apparently not.

Evidence that not everyone understands this basic principle of story-telling comes not just from recent writing-group conversations but also from a set of contest entries I recently judged. Novel after novel opened with “introductions” to plain-vanilla characters going about their daily business or mundane scene-setting, or, all too often, gobs of backstory about people I have no reason to care about.

A scintillating voice or a rapier sense of humor can carry me for a few such pages, but even then, by the end of the first chapter, I have to have someone to worry about, something really perplexing to wonder over, some hint of a serious conflict that will drive the book. Those are “hooks.”

When I ask, “But where is the story going? What is this character’s problem, goal, frustration?”, and of course, the generic but important, “Why should I care?”, the (often indignant) response will be

“Oh, that will come in Chapter Two.”

or

“The reader will see that develop over the course of the book.”

Um, the reader won’t see anything develop over the course of the book because she won’t read it. She won’t get to Chapter Two.

Books leading to a door in a brick wall

A hook points to the door in the wall. and says, “Come through!”

From occasional comments I’ve received, I think it’s possible that this defense arises because the writers in question are producing LITERATURE. People who read LITERATURE don’t need bombs going off on page one. They will patiently wait for a story to develop. They’ll slog through long, tedious details because they know that only simpletons require things to actually happen. Endless observations of people tying their shoelaces—portraying the cosmic meaning in such minutiae—that’s what LITERATURE is all about.

Excuse me. I read LITERATURE, too. And the LITERARY writers who get read know that story isn’t necessarily about bombs going off. In fact, it’s usually not the bombs that matter.It’s what they do to the people they blow up.

Story is built on heart-wracking conflict, on blistering emotion, on goals set and surrendered and recovered, on needs. STORY transcends genre.

And story begins on page one.

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under genres, Learning to write, literary fiction, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, Writers' groups, Writing

Rewriting: An Overview of the Process

Absolutely one of the best dicussions of story structure I’ve read. Resonates on so many levels for me! I just wrote to a writing group colleague that a story that’s working tells me what it’s about, and I think that sentiment jibes with this discussion. Let me know what you think!

MDellert-dot-Com

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

— C. J. Cherryh

cj-cherryh

The goal of the rewrite is simple, but not easy. You want your story to live. To accomplish this, it’s helpful to have a basic confidence in the arc of your heroine’s journey before getting more specific with character, dialogue, and the refinement of prose. You’re seeking to create a story that amuses and entertains, but also captures some complexity and truth about the human experience.

This is a daunting task because—be honest—there’s a bit of inflexibility in your relationship with your first draft. On the one hand, you fear that if it’s not told as precisely as you imagined it, it won’t work. On the other hand, it feels somewhat unsatisfying as written.

So the biggest challenge in the rewriting is being able to make a thousand little painful paper-cut changes while avoiding…

View original post 1,424 more words

7 Comments

Filed under Editing, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, self editing, Writing, Writing and Learning