Here's a fun writing tip that's quite helpful for plotting.
The beginning and ending of your story are often going to be opposites.
What this means is that your main character typically starts out in an ordinary environment, not living life to their fullest for whatever reason. Then an inciting incident comes along. The main character is pushed beyond their previous limits, discovering themselves and a new world along the way--sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively.
By the time the main character has overcome the obstacles in their path, they should also have experienced significant personal growth. The older the audience of your story, the greater the change is likely to be.
At the end of the story, the main character typically has a different outlook on life, a different view of their future, and a changed environment.
Let's take a look at this in action.
In the classic Cinderella, Cinderella is a poor, overworked, underappreciated maid in her own home at the beginning of the movie. She's too meek to stand up for herself. By the end of the movie, she's a beautiful princess, married to the prince, and moving into the castle. And more importantly, she makes the decision to speak up when her stepmother breaks the slipper and lets the prince know that she's the mystery girl. This is the opposite of her beginning.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is a simple hobbit who doesn't want to go off on an adventure. He knows little of the outside world, and has never encountered anyone capable of true evil in his entire life. Hobbits are peaceful, unnoticed by the outside world. By the time Bilbo's journey is done, he's learned to be brave, traveled farther than many creatures of Middle Earth, fought incredible dangers, and become one of the most significant figures in the battle between good and evil. While Bilbo ends up back home again, he is forever changed and doesn't feel completely at ease until he gives up the ring and leaves again.
If you know where you want your story to begin, but not where it should end, try envisioning how to turn the main character's situation on its head. Then chart a path that will lead them there. This also works if you know your ending but not your beginning.
Let's talk about filtering words--what they are, and why you want to use them sparingly.
Filtering words are words that put more space between the reader and the characters in a story. Instead of directly experiencing whatever the character is experiencing, filter words move the reader back so that the character's experience is being relayed to the reader by the narrator.
(Pro tip: Filter words are typically verbs revolving around the five senses and the character's thoughts and knowledge.)
Why is filtering a bad thing? Well, it isn't always. Sometimes short and to the point is fine. But filter words, by putting distance between the reader and the action, make it harder for a reader to stay immersed in a story. They keep readers at arms' length, instead of creating connections.
One good rule of thumb is that the more involved you want a reader to feel with a scene or character, the less filtering you should use.
If you want to build drama and tension in a scene, you want the reader to feel like they're there, right alongside the main character. That means you want to replace filtering words with stronger verbs that pull the reader in to the experience.
Examples of filtering verbs: to see, to hear, to feel, to touch, to smell, to taste, to know, to wonder, to realize, etc.
But using sensory descriptions is good, and helps pull in readers, you might protest. And you'd be right. But you want to do it the right way, by showing what the character is experiencing.
Filtering: I heard the birds chirping.
Without filtering: Bird songs filled the clearing, their cheerful conversations bounding from tree to tree like an avian game of Telephone.
Filtering: I smelled cinnamon rolls baking.
Without filtering: The smell of warm, yeasty dough greeted me as I walked in the door, with a hint of something else...cinnamon?
See how the filtering version could be me retelling the experience to someone later? Compare that with the non-filtering version, where I describe an experience as it's happening, as if you, the reader, are there with me. That's what you want your readers to feel.
Give it a try in your own manuscripts, or comment below with a filtered version of a sentence and a non-filtered version if you feel like sharing!
Whether you're a plotter or a pantser (or even a plantser--a little bit of both), we can all agree that coming up with a revision plan is often hard work. But for my fellow pantsers out there, who discover their stories and their characters as they write their first drafts, revisions can seem particularly intimidating. Today's post will give you some tips on how revise once you've finished that first draft.
1. ALWAYS remember that you can't fix everything at once.
Stories go through many drafts before they even start to look polished enough to query. If you sit down and try to go from rough draft to perfection in one round, you will get overwhelmed, burned out, and feel like giving up. Don't do this to yourself!
2. Pick one or two aspects to focus on during each round of drafting, starting with the larger elements first.
Things like plot, theme, and characterization need to be solid before you focus on minute, line-level revisions. Don't waste hours finding the perfect sentence to describe the glint of sunlight off the love interest's hair if you're not sure that scene will be in the finished product. Start big picture, and work your way down to polishing every word choice last.
3. Use a plot chart.
I can hear all the pantsers out there gasping. Once you've discovered your story, though, you might also discover that you need to do some rearranging and remodeling. Try writing down each key scene and check them against one of the many plotting methods available online. (Seven-point story structure is one I like if you haven't done much plotting before.) Do your scenes fit the flow of action in their current order, or do you need to move things around? Do you have scenes that are distracting from the plot and belong in your backstory file, not the novel? Or are you missing pivot points that change the course of the novel? Checking the plot structure after writing a first draft allows pantsers to enjoy that heady discovery phase they need, while helping to ward off pesky saggy middles.
4. Get to know your characters.
Dig deeper into your characters, beyond their appearances. What are their fears, their goals, their loves? What will they fight for? What will they run from? What hurts are they hiding, and what makes them lash out in pain? Find out what motivates your character to behave the way they do, so their behavior will make sense throughout the story. Characters can make strange choices, but they still should make sense for that character, given their emotional trauma, their desires, and their goals.
5. Find the theme or inner core of your story.
What's your story really about? Most stories have some inner truth underlying the action; something that the main character must learn over the course of the story. The theme often ties in to the character's deepest feelings, so completing #4 will help with this task.
6. Give yourself time in between rounds of revisions.
It's vital to give yourself space between yourself and your first draft (and all the others), so you can look at it more objectively. Often what we think we've put on paper is so strong in our heads that we can't see the details we've left out or haven't communicated clearly until we step back from the story for a little while. Come at the story with fresh eyes, and you'll notice more of your mistakes--and be pleasantly surprised by the things you did well.
Today's quick tip is about how to name your files when you're ready to start querying. There are two main things to keep in mind when an agent asks for a document as an attachment.
1. Always include your last name and title in the save file name.
For example, if you were to look inside one of my main writing folders, it looks like this:
You'll notice how file versions that have been sent out with queries all have the title in all caps and my last name, plus a brief descriptor of the document--query, first chapter, etc. This also prevents me from accidentally sending out the wrong version of a file.
Agents receive thousands of emails. You always want to make sure enough of your contact information is on every document and email for them to find you. When an agent downloads a submission to read, it can be difficult to remember which email and query it went with. Make everyone's life easier by including your name on your file.
2. For the benefit of agents who read on e-readers, make sure your information is correct on the document's properties.
This one is simple to fix, but I didn't know about it until I saw a few agents mention it some time ago. In MS Word, when you click on the blue "File" tab, you'll see a screen that has all sorts of information about your document. On the right side of the split screen, it lists the number of pages, word count, editing time--which I'm not sure I want to know!-- author name, and title. (The default on author name is often the computer company.)
So why does this matter? Because it can affect how your document information is displayed on an e-reader. Remember, your goal is to make it as easy for an agent who likes your work to find your information as possible. See where "Properties" is underlined in yellow? Click the arrow there, then go to "Advanced Properties," and then "Summary." That will bring up a dialogue box where you can set the document's title and your name in the author field. There you go! Now you're ready to send your documents off into the wild, in search of an agent or a publisher.
Today's post is inspired by the time I spent this week helping one of my kids, who has some learning disabilities, with a writing assignment. She had to write a short story for English, after plotting it out with a nice chart the teacher had given out. And even though kiddo is extremely smart and creative and great at telling stories, putting them on paper is an incredibly stressful experience for her.
Enter writer and editor mom, to the rescue! And as we tackled her assignment together and I did my best to nudge her along, I realized something that hadn't quite clicked before.
Every sentence is a choose-your-own-adventure type pivot point.
Each sentence builds on the one that came before it. Presenting her with choices at each sentence when she didn't know what to say next helped her to avoid getting stuck in the dreaded writer's block.
In practical terms, our discussion went something like this:
Me: Okay, you have a mob of angry villagers approaching the main character and her giant, hungry cat. Does she hear or see them first?
Her: Hear them.
Me: Okay, what do they sound like?
Her: Describes it.
Me: Okay, so does she see them next or run away?
Her: She sees them.
Me: What do they look like?
Her: Angry mob with pitchforks! Standard stuff.
Me: Got it. So how does the main character react? Does she say anything, do anything, feel anything? What is the giant cat who's the cause of all the fuss doing?
Hopefully you get the idea. By using this technique of approaching every sentence as a potential fork in the road, we were able to keep her from getting stuck in any one spot, and actually wrote a first draft that was twice as long as it needed to be. (Oops. But that's what editing is for!)
So next time you feel a bout of writer's block coming on, or you just aren't sure where the scene you're working on is going, try the choose-your-own-adventure approach at the sentence level. You might be surprised at how well it works!
Chances are, if you participate in any online writing communities, you've probably seen NaNoWriMo mentioned a lot this week. NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge that happens every November, with an alternate version in April where you can set your own challenge. For NaNo, participants aim to write 50,000 words of a new story over the course of a month. You can outline and prepare as much as you like beforehand, but no writing until November 1st. If you're shooting for 50,000 words in 30 days, that's an average of 1,667 words per day.
Not everyone does NaNo, and not all participants finish. And that's okay. There are writing tools offered as prizes for the winners, and stat-trackers and writing help groups to keep you on track. The "Adopt a plot-bunny" forum is always one of my favorites, personally. I've participated several times; sometimes I "win," and sometimes I don't.
Here's the key thing to remember: You win at NaNoWriMo when you get words on paper. Any words at all.
It doesn't have to be 50k. It doesn't have to be a thousand. The point of NaNo is to encourage people to write. The theory is that if you sit down to write, and let yourself go, and forget about editing, you help yourself develop routines and strengthen your creative writing muscles. Too often writers get bogged down in trying to edit sentences as they go, striving for perfection in early drafts. This isn't realistic, and inhibits your progress. It's a lot easier to trim and shape and polish a manuscript once you have a completed draft to work from. And editing as you go tends to be discouraging; it's a process that has killed many stories over the years.
Some years NaNoWriMo may work for your schedule, and sometimes it doesn't. This year I'm in an editing phase, so I'm not doing the official challenge. Instead, I'm committing to editing a manuscript in one month. You can do your own version, with whatever goal is realistic for you, any time you want.
The goal is to set aside time for your writing, whatever stage you may be at. The world needs more stories, including yours.
Today's editing tip will hopefully not only help you keep rejections at bay, but also will help you keep heartache away.
Back up your work in multiple locations, in multiple formats.
Thankfully, this particular post is not inspired by recent personal experience, so no need for condolences. But we've all had that mini heart attack when the work-in-progress begins to load, and it looks like half the document is missing. However, computers crash, files get corrupted... There are too many ways to lose your precious work to list them all here.
And your work is precious. It's something unique, that only you can create and add to the world. So treat it accordingly.
What does back it up in multiple locations mean, and why should you do it?
Multiple locations means more than just different folders on your computer. Computer experts recommend using at least two or three different types and locations of backup for any important documents. If all your backups are on a laptop, and that laptop gets stolen, then you're out of luck. If you use a home computer and an external hard drive or USB drive and you have a fire, your work is gone.
A good plan includes backing up your work with multiple versions on the device you write on AND backing it up online somehow. External drives/USB drives are also useful, as long as you update them frequently. Having multiple versions is handy in case the file ever becomes corrupted or you simply change your mind about that massive revision. It's also a fascinating snapshot of how your work has progressed during revisions.
Backing your files up online can be done several different ways.
1. You can periodically email yourself your manuscript as an attachment. I like to email it as a PDF and a .docx file, just in case. You can even email your manuscript as a PDF to your e-reader, if you have one. (For Kindle, if you go to "Manage your content and devices," and then the "Devices" tab, you can click on the ellipsis button to the left of your Kindle and it will bring up your device's email.)
2. You can also use a service like Dropbox, which provides free online storage up to a certain amount per user. The great thing about Dropbox is you can set it to sync across your devices, and you can tell it how often to save and backup your work.
3. You can use Google docs, which will automatically save and sync across devices as well.
4. Microsoft's OneDrive is similar, although I personally have trouble getting mine to sync.
Why back up in multiple locations? Because redundancy, in this case, is your friend. If you lose your computer somehow, you'll still have online versions. If your internet is down and you can't access your Google docs, you'll still have a copy on your computer. If you want to work on your manuscript away from home, you can access it on your phone. You can take a USB stick and borrow a friend's computer. Back it up enough ways, and you'll be able to deal with just about any problem. No more writer nightmares of losing hours worth of work because Windows decided to update or your battery ran out.
English is a strange language, no doubt, and it continues to evolve. But sometimes, people forget that even with all its irregularities and rule-defying spellings, on a sentence level, English still makes sense.
What does that mean? Well, when someone uses a figure of speech or a common saying, the sentence should still make sense. But people make mistakes with these sayings fairly often, especially when they've never seen them written down.
You can usually avoid this common pitfall in your writing if you stop and ask yourself: does this saying make sense?
Here are some examples of common mistakes we see:
WRONG: a Chester drawers
RIGHT: a chest of drawers
(While the usage of chest here as a piece of furniture, like a toy box, is a bit old-fashioned, a "Chester drawers" makes no sense.)
WRONG: I would of come
RIGHT: I would have come
("Of" may be how many people pronounce this, but it doesn't make sense if we stop and think about it, right? And perfect past-tense verbs take had/have as helper verbs.)
WRONG: I could care less
RIGHT: I couldn't care less
(This one I have to stop and think about every time, because it's so commonly misused. If I could care less about something, then that logically means I DO care about it. If it doesn't matter to me, then I could not care any less about it than I currently do.)
WRONG: I defiantly agree
RIGHT: I definitely agree
(Defiance generally indicates opposition to something, so while I can agree with someone and have an attitude about it, I can't really defy them while still agreeing with them.)
WRONG: Peek/Peak my interest
RIGHT: Pique my interest
(This is a vocab mistake we see fairly often. Pique just isn't used often enough in English, outside of this particular phrase, for it to be familiar. But if we think about it, neither "peek" nor "peak" make sense. Sneaky look my interest? High point (of something) my interest? Both choices are plainly nonsense.)
There are many more examples we could go over, but let's cover solutions to this particular editing problem instead.
Step one is to think it through and see if the phrase or figure of speech makes sense.
Step two, if the phrase doesn't seem to make sense the way you've written it, is to look it up. Ask a friend, ask an editor or writer you know, throw it out on social media as a question (because chances are if you're making one of these mistakes, other people are too--it's pretty common, and nothing to be that embarrassed about). Or check it out on your search engine of choice. Googling "sayings people get wrong" brought me up pages of results with lists of all the sayings people tend to misspell.
Number one piece of advice, for this and any other editing problem? Never be afraid to ask for help. We've all been there.
One of the biggest differences between what I thought writing would be like and the reality of what an author's life is like is editing. In high school, English teachers teach minimal revision skills. And with the amount of information they're trying to pack in to limited class time and disinterested students, they're hardly to blame.
The point is, most students (in America, at least) come out of school not understanding how to approach intensive revisions. If you'd asked me ten to fifteen years ago what editing meant, I'd have said copy-editing and a quick check for continuity errors, that sort of thing.
Pause for laughter.
In case you're an editing innocent like I once was, here are some steps you can take in your editing process once you have a completed draft. You don't have to do all of these, or even in this order.
1. Outline your plot as it currently stands. Then compare it to a beat sheet, and plan how to adjust any pacing issues.
2. Write a one-sentence summary of each chapter/scene. Look at pacing, and how each scene furthers the plot. Is anything unnecessary? Does anything need filling out?
3. Examine the main character's emotional arc. What challenges do they face throughout the novel? Do they experience growth? A flat internal arc means readers may have a hard time investing in that character.
4. Find your novel's theme. What's at the heart of the story, and is it clear enough on the page?
5. Read over the draft, making notes on changes to be made. Don't do anything other than minor copy-edits at this stage, because it's a waste of time. If you're going to rewrite massive chunks--and there's a good chance you are--there's no point in perfecting sentences on this read through.
6. Start looking for critique partners. Once you have a draft you're comfortable with, and you feel you've done all the big revisions you know you need to, CPs can help you figure out what to do next. Build friendships and goodwill be being a reciprocal critique partner. Plus, it will help you flex your own revision muscles.
7. Let the manuscript sit for a week or two before diving back in. Coming at it with a fresh eye helps you see problems you might not catch otherwise.
8. If it helps you get your creative process flowing or to pin down themes, characters, or moods, make aesthetics or playlists, etc. Some people find them useful. Some don't.
9. Fill out character profiles to discover what's hiding under the surface of your main cast. When you know more about who your characters are, it comes across on the page.
10. Think about the setting. Is it important? Is it realistic? Do you know enough about the world you're writing? If you need to do some world-building, in between drafts is a good time to do it. Making up major aspects of how your world works can cause inconsistencies, and readers will notice.
11. Research appropriate final word count ranges. A draft doesn't have to be in the right range, but it's good to know if you need to cut or add to get to your target before you write fifty-thousand extra words and then realize you have to cut sixty-thousand.
12. Research and read about comp titles. You may not want to actually read comp titles as you're working, because it can be intimidating. Or worse, it can influence your own work and land you in copyright trouble. But if you don't have comps in mind already, you can still research online to find books that sound similar in theme, tone, plot, etc.
13. Keep reading in your genre. It's fun, and it's good research for what audiences expect from your type of story.
14. Make sure to keep your creative batteries charged.
15. If you want a boost of energy, researching agents and manuscript wishlists can help. Finding an agent who is asking for your story is a great kick in the pants to keep you going, even when revisions get tough. Plus, making a to-query list early on in the process gives you time to research potential matches and hopefully avoid pitfalls. Never send materials to someone you haven't vetted.
If you have revision process suggestions, let us know in the comments below!
One of the most common questions we get about showing after "how can I improve my Showing vs. Telling techniques" is "how can I figure out when to Show and when to Tell?"
Remember, not everything needs to be shown in a narrative. Showing creates an emotional response in the reader. Sometimes, though, it's better for the pacing to tell an event briefly instead of showing it in full detail. Here's a tip to help you decide whether showing or telling is what a situation calls for.
Showing is best used when you want to evoke feelings in the reader. Telling is best used when something doesn't need to create that emotional connection.
So what does that look like in a manuscript? Let's take weather as an example. Imagine it's important for the reader to know that it's raining, because it affects the characters' choices. Does the storm need to be shown or told? It depends. Does the storm have an emotional significance to the characters? Then use some telling. Is it simply a small element of the plot, without any deeper meaning? Then it can be told.
The choice whether to show or to tell is two-fold. It affects both the emotional response in the reader and the pacing of the story. Too much showing can actually drag the pacing down too much. Too much telling speeds the pace, but it also makes the story feel shallower. Finding the balance between the two is important for crafting a story with good pacing and compelling characters.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!