29 July 2011

Pulling Out the Big Surprise

I watched the film Bridge to Terabithia a few nights ago, while not a new film it’s the first time I’ve seen it.  There is a part about two-thirds through when Jess visits the museum with his teacher.  He’s promised his father he would do more chores, and when he asked his mother that morning if he could go on the field trip, she was sleepy and mumbled a reply that he took to be ‘yes’.  As he returns home there were a few scenarios going through my mind for the next scene, and I was thrilled to be totally wrong-footed. 
So often when watching a film or TV program I’ve guessed the next scene, and it’s all rather predictable.
That got me thinking about plot, and the importance of surprising the reader.
We all know about the importance of conflict and raising the stakes for our protagonist, and in the films/books where I can guess the next scene it isn’t that the writer hasn’t raised the stakes, but that I’ve guessed the outcome.
It won’t necessarily stop me reading, but I am more inclined to go and do something else. 
What we don’t want to do is throw in a lot of red herrings that have nothing to do with the plot.  I dislike that more than guessing correctly what happens next.
Yes the parents in the film were worried, they were probably annoyed as well, but the surprise came from another direction completely.  They were totally in character, but I was looking in the wrong place for the surprise/shock when it came.
When a story unfolds exactly as we expect, it becomes boring.  The person running away from an attacker who heads upstairs.  COME ON.  Once you get to the top floor there’s no-where to go.
When I thought of what happened in Bridge to Terabithia it made sense, the clues were there, but the writer had added other reasonable pieces of information that made his eventual direction a surprise.
Taking the first plot turn we come up with probably means we are going down the boring route.  We have to work on it and come up with a few options before we find the one that is going to make our readers say, ‘Wow I didn’t see that coming.’
I can still feel the grin on my face at reading an OMG!!!!!!  pencilled in next to a plot turn on some feedback from a critique partner.  I had managed to take the story in a direction they weren’t expecting. 
Our task is to do that again, and again, so the reader is emotionally involved in our story rather than just plodding along until they find something better to do.

25 July 2011

Editing Problems

My final comments on editing (for now anyway!) are about writing/critique groups/partners.  Unfortunately I think groups do have a shelf-life.  People’s circumstances change: they move or move on, change jobs and a hundred other things, but while they are working they are worth their weight in gold. 
The first writing group I was a part of started from a writing course.  We were relatively new to writing seriously, and at that time we were all concentrating on short stories.  We met regularly for a couple of years then due to pressure of work and family life we were down one, but carried on meeting for another couple of years. 
Over the years I’ve met other people through workshops, conferences etc and some of those have become casual feedback partners via email.  By casual I mean we request feedback on some writing when we need it, rather than on a regular basis.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts I attended an Advanced Course last year through the CreativeHub and our group decided to keep on submitting writing to each other for critique after the course finished, and we meet once a month.  When I started meeting with the group I had completed Lives Interrupted, and had a request for a full manuscript from a publisher that eventually led to a rejection with some feedback.
At that point I wasn’t sure where to go next with Lives Interrupted.  I had some concerns over one of the plot lines and was ignoring my instincts that it wasn’t strong enough.  One of the first things the group did was to confirm my instincts.  I cut out that particular plot line, and in that way I was able to look at how the remaining story lines could be enhanced and the characters deepened.  The group have also pointed out things that I hadn’t noticed.  When you are deep in your own plot and characters it can be difficult to step back and see things as a reader.
If you're interested in how critique groups can work here is a link to a previous post.

22 July 2011

Editing - Details

There are as many ways to edit as there are to write, and the amount of editing needed probably depends on the way you write your first draft, and your experience as a writer.  Some writers produce only a few hundred words during a session, but each are perfect and need little editing.  I am not one of these.
I started out as a writer who edited and tinkered with everything along the way.  That can work for short stories, but I certainly wasn’t making progress with my novel.  Then I read an article on the merits of getting your first draft finished as quickly as possible, giving the story pace and the author something tangible to work with.  Since then that’s the way I’ve tried to work.  It means I have quite a lot of editing to do, but I do have a finished first draft.
After the Big Picture edit my manuscript has had some big changes, but is in much better shape.  As with the previous editing I try to do this read through in a concerted time period, and then work on the various ‘jobs’ once the entire mark up is complete.  This means if I only have a few minutes I can take a simple task such as a find and replace for changing a character’s name.  There are also times of the day when I’m not so creative and these are useful for more mundane editing tasks.
However onto the things I cover in the detail editing.
This is when I start to read out loud.  It helps me to check things such as:
  • Rhythm and flow of my sentences.  Have I varied sentence length and structure?  Do they work with the pace?  For example shorter sentences for action. 
  • How does it read?  Are there parts where I stumble over sentences or words? 
  • Word usage – have I used the same words or phrases too often, or too close together?  It’s amazing how you notice those things when you are reading out loud.
Dialogue - reading out loud is especially good for dialogue.  Does it sound natural?  Is it there for a purpose, or just padding out the word count.
Speech tags – enough, too many?  Is it always obvious who is talking? Have I added some action, or do I just have talking heads.
Do my main characters have a distinctive voice?
If I’m using a close third person POV I want to get into the character’s head so I look for and remove things such as: he muttered/ she thought.
Non-verbal communication – this isn’t just linked to dialogue (but seemed a good time to mention it).  Do my characters have habits or mannerisms?  Have I made each occurrence of them fresh in the way I’ve written it, or am I just repeating the same thing?
I search for words such as: smile, grin, frown, eyebrow, fist, laugh, lips etc. to make sure I’m not describing emotions or people in the same way.
Beginnings and endings – of sections/chapters but also paragraphs.  All should be working to pull the reader along, making them want to read more.  For sections/chapters do the beginnings inform the reader as to where, when and who?  If it’s a follow-on from the previous section you need to do very little here, but if time has elapsed, or it’s a different setting, now is the time to alert the reader to this.  You don’t have to slow the pace with too much detail, simplicity is best here.  The following afternoon…   Later that day…  When they reached London…
Do your chapter endings urge the reader to carry on rather than going to sleep?
Description – too much, not enough.  This is difficult to gauge as some people love description and others hate it.  Look at where you’ve placed it.  In the middle of a chase scene your main character isn’t going to admire the rose garden, and think of the beautiful flowers her mother used to grow. 
Is the description being seen through the eyes of the POV character?  Different people will see things in a different way, and their mood will also colour what and how they see things.
Have I used all the senses?  Do descriptions of people show personality and character or just physical attributes?
Clichés – look for these and delete them, or write them in a different way.  Included in this are often-used word pairings.  It might not be a cliché, but if the words roll off your tongue, or someone can finish your sentence for you it needs to be changed. 
Adverbs and adjectives – delete the majority and the few you leave will stand out strongly.
Weak words – these are words that I think make writing weaker, but unfortunately they appear throughout my first drafts.  During the editing process I do a search for them, and delete most.  Those that stay really have to earn their keep.  Words on my list are:  almost, about, appear, seem, nearly, some, sometimes, occasionally, often, few, fairly, really, very, just, many. 
At this point I’ll also mention tautologies – repetition or using different words to say the same thing.  For example free gift, widow woman. 
These are my thoughts, and things I’ve found I need to change in my writing, your writing will be different, as will the way you work.  The most important thing I’ve found whether detailed editing or big picture, is to do the read through in as short a period of time as possible, and don’t mess around changing little bits unless it is on your task list from a read through.  I’ve wasted so much time in the past looking at little bits in isolation, and making changes only to find I’ve messed up my timeline, or deleted something I needed for the plot further on in the manuscript.
Happy editing and I hope this has been of some use.

18 July 2011

Editing – Big Picture editing (the last bit)

I was a little surprised to find myself still with things to say about big picture editing.  I think it's because I do most of this part intuitively.  This is the first time I’ve written down what I cover for the big picture, whereas over the years I’ve created checksheets and lists of things around the detailed areas of editing.  At heart I really am a details person.
When I’m doing my read through for the big picture stuff I try and read the manuscript in as few sittings as possible.  The best would be in one sitting but I’ve never yet managed that.  Usually two or three sittings, but I try to make these over consecutive days and my goal is to read the entire manuscript in two days as this helps the whole process immensely. 
If I leave it too long between readings I forget exactly what my characters know and have done.  This is a problem for a lot of writers, we have the whole plot already in our head and this means we are aware of secrets/clues/history that the character may not yet know.  Reading the manuscript in this way also helps me to know if I’ve kept up the pace in the novel.
If you’re still freaking out over my comment of reading your entire manuscript over one or two days, remember this is big picture stuff.  I’m not changing the typos and grammatical errors, or looking for exactly the right word in a paragraph - that all comes later.  This is one of the main reasons for reading on hardcopy, I'm not tempted to start tinkering with little bits.  To recap I'm mostly reading it as a reader while making sure:
  • The plot hangs together.
  • It flows well and there is a logical progression.
  • The timeline is correct and realistic.
  • The pace is right for the genre and target readership.
  • Each scene is necessary, in the right place, has a goal and/or shows character growth or change.
  • The structure is working and doesn't get in the way of the story.
  • By the end of the manuscript I’ve answered all the questions I raised for the plots and subplots.
If I do get a flash of inspiration on how to improve a scene, deepen a character etc. I make a brief note on the manuscript so I don’t forget, and then carry on reading.  I don’t stop to type, make the corrections, or look through the thesaurus for a better word, all of that comes later.

15 July 2011

Editing – The Big Picture continued

There are a couple of things I missed out of the previous post.  The main one being that I edit on hardcopy.
I find it easier to keep track of what I’ve done – red pen everywhere (maybe I should have been a school teacher!)  When restructuring I can move physical pages around to get a feel for the flow, even cutting paragraphs out and stapling to other pages if I split sections.
All the printing and paper makes me finish the job, and finally hardcopy seems more portable, even though my laptop usually travels around with me.
Goals are a huge part of any novel.  When I first wrote Driftwood I had an overall story goal and conflict, but I hadn’t put much thought into the importance of goals for each scene, meaning I had a lot more editing to do when I finished the first draft.  While writing Lives Interrupted I asked myself questions about each section.  Did it really need to be there?  Was there a point to it, rather than just padding out the word count.  Were there goals to be met?  Did it move the plot forward and/or show character change/growth?
Is your overall structure working?  Driftwood is written in chapters, whereas Lives Interrupted is in fairly short sections, each one a different character POV from the previous section.
This big picture read through is also the time I ask myself whether the characters are working, do they change through the story?  Is their change realistic?  As an example Kate in Lives Interrupted is a Kiwi in London.  When I finished the first draft I realised that to emphasise the change in her character she needed to be a lot more happy-go-lucky and optimistic in the opening sections.  More editing.
Earlier in the week I watched an episode of a TV programme where two of the plot points weren’t answered.  They were large enough points to make me think the episode was a two-parter.  Not so.  Don’t do that in your manuscript.
Don’t forget I’m talking about how I edit.  This works for me, but it took me a while to figure out.  Try things and decide what works best for you. 

11 July 2011

Editing – The Big Picture

So you’ve written your opus.  Well the first draft at least.  Now comes the hard work.  Editing means different things to different people – from a quick sweep through with the spell checker to a full-blown restructure of the manuscript, and everything in between.  So I thought I’d write about how I edit as I think it’s useful to know how other people work.  I’ve picked up ideas I would never have thought of without someone sharing them with me. 
If we use a film analogy, I start with a wide-angle lens to get the overall feel and view, ignoring tiny details (for now at least).  The big picture.  In the past I’ve spent hours agonising over finding exactly the right word, or rewriting paragraphs, only to discard the entire scene or section.  What a waste of time and effort.
Firstly I read through the entire manuscript asking myself questions such as:
  • Does the plot hang together?
  • Is there a logical plot progression?
  • Does it flow?
  • Have I mixed up my timeline?  Do I have two Saturdays in a row?  Do things happen in the correct order?
  • Is my timeline realistic?  Can people be where they should be?  As an example the early sections of Lives Interrupted have a very loose timeline running from February through to July with no exact dates.  But that changes about a third of the way through with the second third covering a two-week period .  To ensure I had all my scenes and the timeline correct, I created a detailed spreadsheet to keep everything in line.  Of course not all plots will need this level of detail for timelines.
  • Pace.  Do I need extra scenes?  Have I moved the story too far too fast because I know what is happening, but left the poor reader confused?  Or in contrast have I fallen in love with my poetic descriptions and they’re slowing the story down?  Are there scenes that don’t add anything to the plot, or move the story forward?
In my view all these are big picture items, and if I’m changing these I’m doing more than a little tweaking, which is why I leave the detail items to later, once all of this is working.
Hopefully long before this point I’ve chosen the right character(s) to tell the story, and the right tense and POV, but if a first draft isn’t working it can be down to one of these.
More on editing to come...

08 July 2011

The End is Just the Beginning

As I finished writing the last scene of Driftwood I felt this amazing sense of euphoria.  I had finished.  Actually finished a novel, something that a lot of people never manage.  Think of all those opening chapters stuffed in drawers, or languishing on hard drives.
I felt much the same exhilaration as I finished the first draft of Lives Interrupted.
Unfortunately finishing the first draft is far from the end.  In some ways it’s just the beginning.  My first drafts are definitely not fit for anyone’s eyes but mine, so there is always a lot of hard work ahead.  But.  Take a moment: sit back, smile, and feel pleased with yourself, at least you now have something to work with.