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Monday, November 30, 2009

Eliminate Repetitive Scenes

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Eliminate Repetive Scenes

Rehashing Information May Cause a Sagging Middle in Your Novel

Utilize a scene index to look at your novel’s story structure and identify possible repetitious scenes to beef up the pacing.

Many times, writers will be able to see that their middle “sags,” or the pacing slows in the middle portion of the novel.

There are several ways to avoid the sagging middle, but often the problem can be some repetition of information. Identifying it, however, can be difficult when faced with searching a 100,000 word manuscript.

Utilize a Scene Index

For each scene, skim the scene and jot down key elements:

Pertinent information to the plot that is revealed
Key character emotions that are uncovered or hinted at
Changes to the character that results in different decisions
New developments or plot twists
New characters introduced
Character backstory that is confessed or discovered

Many times, writing these elements on index cards, Post-It notes, or small pieces of paper are best. Another option is using cells in a spreadsheet program like Excel. Use one card/paper/cell for each scene.

Number the cards so you know the order of the scenes. Also, you might want to list a phrase or title at the top of each card that summarizes the scene.

Lay all the cards out on a table, the floor, or posted on a wall or board. That way, all the scenes are visually in front of you. This is your Scene Index.

Make Any Repetition Count

Even as you are creating the cards, you might start to notice repetition. For example, Joan expresses unexplained anger at Edward in scene 12, and then she does it again in scene 24.

Sometimes repetition is necessary, but ideally, if something is repeated, there should also be some new development to accompany it so that it’s not the same. For example, Joan again expresses anger at Edward in scene 24 but she also hints that he’s to blame for her mother’s death.

Make Each Scene Build Off the One Before

Some repetition occurs because the scenes have become episodic, not moving the story question forward or pursuing the story purpose.

As you look at your Scene Index, make sure that each scene is a result of a scene before, building off of the new information or the change that has occurred in a previous scene. You do not want your Scene Index to show several scenes that are too alike.

For example, the character does a specific action in scene B because of new information he discovered in scene A. Or the character makes a decision in scene D because of an argument in scene C. Or the character has a discussion with a certain suspect in scene F because of a clue discovered in scene E.

Eliminate Repetition With Change

Insert something different into every scene, and that will help to eliminate unnecessary repetition.

If your story is constantly changing because of new information, new developments, new characters, new discoveries, then you naturally keep repetition to a minimum.

Trust Your Reader

Some writers want to make sure the reader gets a certain point or understands something about the character, but repetition is not the way to do it.

Instead, show the character in various situations as the story goes along. Or reveal information in small bits and pieces so that the reader has to uncover the mystery. Or to show routine, give clues from what other characters say or do.

Be creative in how you can reveal information through different ways that also forward the plot, rather than falling back on repeating yourself.

Your reader will pick up on things the first time—trust your reader.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing Interesting Valleys in Between Peaks

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Interesting Valleys in Between Peaks

Keep the Reader Intrigued Even If Conflict Has Ebbed

In lulls in the novel, narrow the scene’s focus or change things up to keep the reading pace strong.

Stories are a series of peaks and valleys, high tension scenes and low tension scenes, also known as Scenes and Sequels. You must have those lulls in order to give the reader a chance to catch his breath, and also to set up the next scene.

However, while you must have these low tension scenes, make sure they don’t put your reader to sleep.

Use Words and Phrases to Pace the Sequel

In general, higher tension scenes have shorter sentences and a choppier reading flow to encourage a faster reading pace, so for lower tension scenes, use longer sentences and more flowing grammatical structure.

Obviously, don’t go to extremes. Use your own better judgment in this. However, this can be a valuable tool to clearly indicate to the reader that the tension has ebbed and there’s a breathing space here.

Focus On the Character’s Decision For the Next Scene

Let the character go through all the steps she needs to in order to make a decision about what to do next. Draw the reader into this searching process to give her a stake in what’s happening.

This is also a great way to show off the uniqueness your character, if you have her react in an original way to the conflict of the previous scene. It can give your reader insight and sympathy into who this character is, the demons she has to face.

End the scene with the character’s decision for the next scene, which provides a good segueway and keeps the story moving.

Feel Free to Telescope Time

This is a good place to allow longer periods of time to pass. You don’t want the Sequel itself to take too long or else you’ll bore your reader, but this is a good place to allow a few days, weeks, or even months to pass by, skipping the boring stuff but giving the reader a glimpse into the character’s actions, feelings, and thoughts during that time.

Bring Up Subplots

A lower tension scene is also a great place to introduce new information or minor plotlines to the story. You can use these subplots and the character’s reaction to them to reveal personality and morals.

This will enable your reader to delve deeper into the life of your character without a boring narrative treatise on their favorite color, favorite ice cream flavor, and the details of their childhood.

Use a Sequel to Change Viewpoints

Changing viewpoints automatically reduces tension, so you can keep the story moving quickly and still create a valley for the reader to catch his breath.

When you change viewpoint, the reader has to adjust to a new character and situation, which takes time and space. The reading flow slows. Tension drops.

The great thing is that the story itself doesn’t have to slow, but the tension will automatically decrease. For high octane stories, this is a good way to give the reader a breather without slowing down the action itself.

Use Your Own Judgment

Do you need a valley for every peak? No. Do you need a short valley versus a long one? No.

It’s your story. Use your own judgment and gut instinct about it.

The general guideline is to have a valley for every peak, but if you don’t want to do it, then don’t. You have the prerogative because you’re the author.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The first page, part 11 - Query letters and critique partners

This is the last post of my series on things to look for in your first page.
Click here for part ten.

Use that first page with a query letter

Now, many people advise not to put anything into an envelope with a query letter except for the query letter. This is good, safe, and proper.

But if you are a trifle daring, why not include your first page?

After all, if you’ve spent all this time working on it and revising it and making every word count. It ought to be so fantastic that an editor skimming that page will shout, “I must read the rest of this novel!”

If you plan to include the first page with your query letter, that should also spur you to put more time and effort into that first page to make it worthy of that brief glance. After all, you’ll only get that one chance.

Utilize your critique partners

Every piece of writing could use another set of eyes to catch errors, or tell you if something you thought was clear as a bell is actually a bit muddled.

Take advantage of friends to go over that first page, to give feedback, to help you make it as sparkling as it can be. Use both writing friends and also non-writing friends.

Encourage brutal honesty, too—a comment that everything you write is brilliant isn’t going to be as helpful as a comment that a sentence is a tad awkward, or your heroine isn’t very likable because she does XYZ.

And by the way, critique partners typically love chocolate. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

80% discount on Snowflake Pro

From Camy: I just saw this program being used today by a friend of mine, and I can tell you it's fantastic. Very easy to use and intuitive. If you have problems:

--writing a synopsis
or
--structuring your novel
or
--pacing your plot or character arc

then this program will help you with that.

From Randy Ingermanson:

Final Reminder: 80% discount on "Snowflake Pro" ends soon

To Readers of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine:

Just a quick reminder that my 80 percent discount on
"Snowflake Pro" ends soon.

As I write this, about 24 hours remain before I'll end
this special. (It ends on Friday night at midnight,
California time.)

Snowflake Pro is software to make my Snowflake method
faster, easier, and more fun. In the last few days, a
very large number of you, my loyal e-zine readers, have
taken advantage of this one-time special offer to get
Snowflake Pro.

Thanks to all of you who've already e-mailed me to tell
me how much you like it.

This note is just a reminder to those of you who haven't
yet grabbed your copy.

Snowflake Pro is an electronic download which takes
less than 30 seconds to download on most cable modems
or DSL lines. It runs on Macs, Windows, and Linux.

I won't belabor this. If you want Snowflake Pro, you
probably already know it. You can read all the details
here:

http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/links/96.php


PS: One final point. When you buy Snowflake Pro, you
get free upgrades for life. I'm already making a list
of the features I want to add to the next release to
make Snowflake Pro even more powerful and easy to use.

Randy Ingermanson

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Control Story Flow With Sequels

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Control Story Flow With Sequels

The Classic Sequel as Described By Dwight Swain

Dwight Swain’s Sequel can be broken down into easy segments to enable the writer to write a strong story segment that develops character and transitions to the next Scene.

One of the most famous writing books is Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, where he breaks down fiction writing into modules. One of his most popular techniques is Scene and Sequel (described in this article).

Swain describes a Sequel as “a unit of transition that links two scenes,” but Sequels tend to encompass a broader range of purposes than just transition.

Reaction

The Sequel following a Scene allows the writer to slow the pacing and give the reader some breather space. This can be easily accomplished by enabling the character to react to what just happened in the previous Scene.

This controls the story’s tempo and flow by giving the character space to react emotionally. All of us need time to process information.

Reaction could be emotions or actions or both. You can also show other characters’ reactions, and how that impacts the point of view character.

This doesn’t mean you need to show every detail. You can summarize about time passing, or the character doing things.

Dilemma

Create a true dilemma for your character—what to do next? What are his options? Narrow them down.

Try not to give a choice between two happy alternatives or an easy decision. A difficult decision injects a bit more conflict into the story—and into the Sequel, which is typically a slow portion of the story—and keeps the reader interested. The reader suffers with the character and becomes emotionally invested in the character’s decision.

This process of dilemma also shows the reader the character’s inner values, backstory, motivations. The reasons why the character chooses what he does reveals who he is and explains further why he’s after his larger External Goal for the story, which helps the reader understand him better. This gives an understandable motivation to the conflict in the following Scene.

This is a good place for the writer to introduce new information or sometimes new characters. Give the character all the resources he needs to decide what to do next.

This is also a good place to telescope time because it usually takes some time to come to a decision. This contrasts a Scene, which is typically in real time.

Decision

After weighing all the options, the character decides what to do next, which becomes the Goal for the next Scene. This enables Scene to follow Sequel to follow Scene, a smooth transition of peaks and valleys.

A Sequel Doesn’t Mean Low Tension

Many times, writers will eliminate all tension from a Sequel since the majority of it is reactive and contemplative. However, if the tension is too low, the reader will put the book down.

Opt instead for some slight, relatively unimportant tension—but tension nevertheless—that carries through the Sequel. The character still has a Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision, but there’s a nagging tension in the background that keeps the scene from being too boring.

For example, Harriet could be Reacting to the previous Scene and deciding what to do next while sitting in her living room (yawn). Or, she could be thinking these things while on the job as a kindergarten teacher, dealing with screaming children.

The process of Scene and Sequel might seem awkward or contrived at first, but once the writer blends the principles of this technique into his own writing style, it’s easy to see how this scene format accomplishes several things: regulate pacing, integrate conflict, develop character, and forward the story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Live brainstorming session and Critique Contest

Live Brainstorming Session with The Shredder aka Danica Favorite, Moi, & Cheryl Wyatt, plus a CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY by Cheryl, all over at Seekerville today:

http://seekerville.blogspot.com/2009/11/live-brainstorming-session-with.html

Monday, November 16, 2009

Q&A: Deepening Character

Camille Cannon Eide asked:

Hi Camy - I'm working on a substantive edit and I'm looking for ways to deepen a character, give her more dimension. What are some ways to bring out more of a character's strengths and weaknesses, give the reader more of a reason to root for her?


Camy here: You’re actually talking about two slightly different things—character richness and character sympathy.

Character richness:

A three-dimensional character with flaws and strengths actually doesn’t just jump out of a writer’s head. Typically, authors spend a great deal of time embellishing and digging deeper into a character, whether before the book is written or as they’re editing.

Three-dimensional characterization is a deliberate, concentrated effort.

One of the best books I’ve found for doing this is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins, chapters 1 and 2. She uses dramatic techniques to enable writers to create a richer character, just the way a good actor will create a richer character to act out.

Basically, you want to know not just character backstory, but how that backstory has shaped the character’s morals and viewpoint on life. And not just the viewpoint he’ll tell someone else—but the deeper, inner viewpoint he himself might not even realize he has, but which influences every decision he makes.

Once you start with this “inner value,” as Brandilyn describes it, then that inner value impacts various other aspects of the character’s life, and, more importantly, the decisions the character makes in your story.

Unfortunately, this might require a bit of rewrite if you discover an inner value that dictates a different decision than the one the character made in your story. But if that original decision didn’t seem quite right to you as you wrote it, maybe it’s because it clashed with your character’s inner value, and so you really do need to change it—and possibly change your storyline a bit.

Character sympathy:

One thing I’ve really taken to heart since being contracted is that the opening page (yes, that’s singular—page one of your story) has to show something that makes the reader sympathize or at least empathize with the viewpoint character.

I know that seems like a tall order, but my editors have asked this of me time and again, and I see this often in commercial genre fiction (but it doesn’t necessarily apply to literary fiction).

So ... how to make the character sympathetic in one page?

My secret weapon is the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, chapter 5. He has a quick and dirty list of various things that typically create reader sympathy.

The list is actually interesting to me as a psychology major, because the things all tend to resonate psychologically with the majority of people (naturally, there will always be exceptions). That’s probably why they work most of the time, and why you typically see these techniques in movies.

So, there’s my two-fold answer to your question, which might require this two-fold revision process for your manuscript.

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing Conflict-Filled Scenes

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Conflict-Filled Scenes

The Classic Scene as Described By Dwight Swain

Dwight Swain’s Scene can be broken down into easy segments to enable the writer to write a high tension, interesting story segment.

One of the most famous writing books is Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, where he breaks down fiction writing into modules. One of his most popular techniques is Scene (described in this article) and Sequel.

Swain describes a Scene as “a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.” The key word here is Conflict.

Goal

The Scene moves the story forward by changing your character’s situation. To do that, the character has to want something different than what he already has: the Scene Goal. Basically, what the character is striving for in the Scene. He doesn’t necessarily achieve it, but he has to at least have an idea of what he wants at the beginning of the Scene.

There are three general classifications for Scene Goals:

Possession of something
Relief from something
Revenge for something

The character enters the Scene intending to accomplish his goal by the end of it.

The key is to make the Scene Goal a concrete action, something specific rather than something vague.

The character also should have to need to accomplish the goal right at that moment, creating an immediate need for it. Otherwise, the character has the option of just walking away and trying again later.

Conflict

The majority of the Scene is filled with conflict or obstacles that try to hinder the character’s Scene Goal. They can’t be just “bad things that happen” to the character—they have to work directly against that specific Goal.

Conflict is what keeps the reader reading. While we don’t like conflict in real life, it’s what creates page turners in fiction. So the more conflict, the higher the tension ramps in the scene.

So be creative and be a bit malicious in the opposition you create for your character. Swain writes: “It’s irresistible force meeting immovable object.”

Your opposition doesn’t need to be another person, but there should be strong obstacles. Don’t make it easy for your character.

Disaster

End the scene on a hook, which keeps the reader reading. Throw something unexpected at the character that sinks his battleship—a new turn of events or new information.

The character doesn’t need to accomplish his Scene Goal—in fact, often he doesn’t. Many times, the Disaster ensures that.

But this Disaster will end the Scene with a bang and make the reader wonder what the character will do next—which is shown in the Sequel following the Scene.

An option to the Disaster is a False Positive—the character accomplishes his Goal, and then triumphantly assumes nothing bad will ever happen to him again. This is a sort of “Disaster” because the reader is already waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Follow This Principle But Use Your Judgment

Swain himself insists that these are just guidelines for Scenes and Sequels, not Law. Take this format and bend it to your own will, your own creativity. This general structure helps the story flow, but your novel doesn’t need to rigidly follow this. Insert your own subtlety and variation on the theme.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Author-Speak Cheat Sheet

Hey guys,
Sorry I've been MIA for a few weeks. I've been fighting off some kind of sicky that's left me really tired and headachey (and NO, I'm not pregnant! :)

Anyway, I'll kick off the week with this great "cheat sheet" by Janet Dean that basically summarizes all the major fiction writing terms that a writer might encounter from a contest judge. These are terms thrown around pretty often in the writing community because they refer to common principles which, if mastered, help a writer improve.

Author-Speak Cheat Sheet

Upon occasion, I play golf. Perhaps I should say golf plays me. Either way, there’s a language to this game. Terms that make me grunt, “Huh?” Like: “Pick the ball clean.” “Get down on the ball.” “Play your drives off your left heel.” I can’t blame my game on these baffling words of advice, but they’re not helpful if I can’t decipher their meaning.

Writing has its own language too. I call it author speak.


Click here to read the rest of the article.
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