I often here writers talk about ‘the sagging middle” of a story. How they struggle to get through it, some writers struggle with how to tie things up at the end. Me…it’s the beginning. The first one thousand words of a short story or five thousand of a novel kill me.
I know it’s because I have that damn internal editor inside me questioning every word I put on the page, but knowing it’s a process does not make it any easier to get through. With that in mind I’ve put together a little list of things that help me start my creative engine and get over the hump.
1) A Challenge.
While I’ll often challenge friend to write 1k in 1 hour or see who can write the most in 20 minute sprints, It’s not good to depend on others to get myself started, so I’ve been known to use Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die program, or simply hermit away and use the the Neo with no internet access.
2) Do something.
When I find myself either staring at the screen for too long, or surfing the net too much I get up and walk away from the computer and do something else.e ANything else that isn;t writing oriented. Walk around the block, do the dishes, take a shower, bakes some cookies. Getting away from the computer and DOING something often helps me focus when I do sit back down.
3) Take a nap.
Yes, this is just the opposite of number 2, but at the same time it helps. I lie down with the story idea or problem in mind, and often the solution comes to me when half away. The key to this is that I have to start writing again as soon as I wake up though, or I forget whatever it was that came to me and start thinking too hard and questioning myself again.
What do you do when you need to get past a hurdle?
“Sex acts don’t drive erotica, the people who engage in them do.”
– Hanne Blank, Some Frank Tips For The Aspiring Author
In my opinion, the main key to building a writing career is being able to see your problems for yourself, and to fix them. An agent or an editor will only help you so much because it’s not their job to create a great story. That is the authors job, and an author needs to know enough about story structure and the craft of writing to spot the weaknesses, in a story, and how to fix it. I know, strange advice coming from me, the queen of ‘winging it’, but it’s true. I might not be a huge reader of craft books, but I talk about it a lot with others, and I learn not only from reading my favorite books and analyzing, but from my own mistakes.
In my mind there are two core elements of storytelling. Character and Plot. There are a ton of sub-elements like setting, conflict, atmosphere, theme….but in my mind those are all sub-parts, and they don’t really matter if you don’t get the top two right. .
So let’s start with Characters.
You have to know your character in order to be able to share them with the world via a story, and you have to know them WELL in order to share them completely. If you don’t know them, how is the reader going to?
There are a few different ways to get ot know your characters better.
Me? I like the FREEWRITE method. This means I sit down in front of a blank screen, set a timer for 20 minutes, and write something, anything, in that characters POV.
You can do it for any amount of time, but I suggest you don’t try it for shorter than fifteen minutes, as it often takes at least five to actually get in to the flow of writing. I like this method for a couple of reasons.
*I always learn something surprising about the character because once I get going it almost becomes like I’m channeling them instead of creating them.
*Nine times out of ten I can use what I come up with in my actual story.
Another way to get to know your characters and get in their head is to do a CHARACTER SKETCH, or to INTERVIEW them. Just be sure that these things cover more than basics like hair and eye color. Be sure to ask not just what they do for a living, but who they are, who their best friend is, do they have friends? If no, why not? What does your character want, and why can’t they have what they want?
Which leads us to Obstacles and Conflict, two things that are key to a good plot.
OBSTACLES can be things in the way of what they want, or things they might lose if they go after what they want.
The best CONFLICT in a story is one that gives the character a choice where there is no right or wrong, but instead where there is a difficult choice-one where the reader can not predict exactly what the character will do, and one where the final choice can change the characters as a person.
Our characters come from our imagination, we give them names, jobs, desires and foibles. They have good traits and bad, they are not flat, or one dimensional – at least we don’t want them to be! We want them to be three-dimensional. In order to accomplish that they have to grow and change, the same way we do.
“Let them live. Let them breathe,” Dr.Lyle says when talking about character at last years Novelist Inc Confernce. “Then pressure them into changing.”
Why should we pressure them into change? Because people don’t change unless they have to. Pressure makes things move and people change, which is why we throw obstacles in front of our characters.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing erotica, or young adult, thrillers or science-fiction, the core basics of a good story are the same. Character, and Plot. The two elements work together, and if you want to be a successful author, you have to find a way to understand how, so you can always strive to write a better story without depending on others to tell you where you’re going right, and where you’re going wrong.
I’m working on a short story right now — actually, I was working on it two months ago, got stalled out, and set it aside. I picked it up again last week, and had an epiphany (which is what I was hoping for when I set it aside). The story begins with a young woman arriving at her new home, to start a new life. The location is a rustic valley, a place full of tradition and structure. But there’s a secret, in a tiny house on a hill, that’s causing tension, and the main character soon gets drawn in.
Looking at it with fresh eyes, I realized: this is a gothic romance. The remote setting, the woman out of her element, the mystery. I hadn’t figured that out before. Now I know exactly what to focus on — the main character isn’t actually interested in the secret, but the person the secret is centered on, and the story isn’t about the secret, but about their relationship. Zoom! Got it!
While I’m working on a story, I often try to figure out: what kind of story is this? What structure or formula does it fall into? A formula doesn’t have to be limiting, cliché, or boring. Sometimes, it can help cue you as to what your story’s really about. It can help you figure out what to really focus on. With this current story, when I focused on the secret, the setting and situation, the story stalled. But when I focused on the relationship, the story opened up and took on life. The main character’s stakes became clear. She isn’t just trying to fit in, now. She’s trying to form a bond with a person despite obstacles between them. The secret isn’t the story, it’s a MacGuffin that will bring the two characters together, or keep them apart.
I’ve used identifiable story models before: I thought of Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand as a screwball comedy — one of the driving plots is how Kitty and Ben can’t seem to get together to get married in Las Vegas. Kitty’s House of Horrors was structured as a horror movie — the characters get picked off one by one, and the horror-movie structure gave me a model to use to ramp up the tension for the reader.
Some other examples from the movies: Alien isn’t just a science fiction movie, it’s a horror/slasher movie. What a powerful idea, taking the slasher film model and setting it in space. Inception is, at its core, a heist movie — the group of specialists going after well-guarded goods.
Thinking about what kind of story you’re telling can help make the story more effective. This doesn’t mean slotting in characters and events in the exact same places, having a one-for-one correlation. My short story definitely isn’t Jane Eyre. But thinking about the story in terms of gothic romance helped me realize what was important in it, and helped me structure it in a way that will have an impact for the reader.
My friend Nikki Duncan is always finding ways to hone her craft. She’s devised the easy tips for editing and we wanted to share them with you today.
5 Self-Editing Tips to Ease the Editing Discomfort
Editing, whether it’s after a critique from critique partners or with feedback from an editor or is being done on your own is an intuitive process. The biggest question though is knowing what changes to make and which ones to not. In and effort to help, I thought I’d share some of the bigger things I’ve learned so far.
1. It’s not about the line by line edits so much as learning to see the bigger picture.
2. Listening to those seemingly vague responses from agents and editors can reveal a lot. The key is taking a step back and looking at the work objectively.
3. Awkward/stilted writing is easier to spot and fix than you think.
4. Don’t rely on clichés. If everyone reading your story is going to be able to finish a phrase or sentence find a way to change it up.
5. Learn to identify and nix writing traps specific to you.
Okay, so those are big picture items. Let’s break them down some.
1. To learn to see the big picture, stop worrying about the smaller details like who a heroine’s possible stalker is and ask more pressing questions like why is she being stalked? How does being stalked impact her role or the hero’s role in the story.
Yes, the identity of the villain matters, but if you’re writing romance consider where you want the weight of the story.
2. Vague feedback. Even as a published author we get feedback from our editors or agents that leaves us scratching our heads. I had one recently that I’ve only just managed to fully figure out. What was it? you ask.
Well, I was told some parts of the story don’t seem fully realized. That’s it. That was the direction I was given.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re close to your characters and the story and will have a hard time pinpointing what element isn’t “fully realized”. Here’s what worked for me. Put that story aside and write something else for awhile. Thoughts about story A will pop into your head. Write them down and keep working on story B. Before you know it you’ll have story A worked out again.
And if you don’t have that much time to spare – try brainstorming with someone who hasn’t heard about the story a bazillion times.
3. Awkward/stilted writing. The easiest I think to fix. Read your work out loud. Trust me, you’ll hear missing details and bizarre cadences.
4. The greatest thing since [fill in the blank]. You put “sliced bread” there didn’t you? That’s the kind of cliché you need to nix or twist. And keep in mind, these things can also be overused phrases you use. Twisting it once but using it ten times is the same as using the original.
5. Your writing traps… I see this as mostly your patterns in writing. Examples:
Always using the same words to convey the same message like saying desire ramped/ratcheted higher becomes a trap that’s easy to fall into. Rewrite those lines differently to more actively show the scene.
Watch for sentence patterns and dialog tags. Look at how you’re putting words on the page. Unconsciously, she always began her sentences the same way. How often is a pattern repeated? Or…
“I do not,” she argued.
“You do,” he insisted.
“Well, you’re wrong,” she huffed.
They’re basic examples, but you get the idea right?
One last thing I try to watch for in my own edits is echo words. Look for the occurrence of things like: heart, lips, eyes, gaze, stare, pulse, brows, voice, tone. Do you describe them the same way over and over? Other overused words are often: that, was, just, so, as, like.
I know I’m forgetting stuff, so tell me what you keep an eye out for when you edit.
Nikki Duncan writes sassy and sexy fun with lyrically layered love, senses and often suspense. Check out her books, including her latest release WICKED …in Whispering Cove by visiting www.nikkiduncan.com.
Every word, every story, is special to the person who writes it, generally speaking. But is it really special? Will it stand out in a crowded market to an agent, an editor, a book buyer? Will it compel a reader to pick it up in a market where books compete with TV, video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment?
It can be helpful to put on your reader hat and imagine finding your book in a bookstore, eye caught by the cover, picking it up to read…your one-sentence story hook. It should, as the term implies, hook the reader’s attention. Would it hook yours? You are, presumably, a fan of the genre you’re writing. What books do you love most? What storylines do you find irresistible? What aspects of those stories do you hate or find cliched and overdone? What story would you love to find done with a new angle or twist? Does your one sentence convey that here is something special, worth a reader’s attention?
One good way to test this is to try to come up with a strong one-sentence description, like the kind you find in TV Guide or IMDB describing a series episode or a movie. If you can’t come up with a single gripping sentence, maybe your whole idea is too vague, too weak, too generic.
I analyzed a project of mine this way last week, and I had to conclude; no. It’s not special, there’s nothing new or compelling about it. It’s a tried and true storyline but in a competitive marketplace with more new writers competing for readers’ attention every day, that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to be competent and to come up with a story a reader has already read a thousand times. Not unless something about it really is special, unique, compelling, the same but different in an irresistible way.
So I went back to the drawing board, and I found an approach that really is compelling, a different take on a classic kind of romance. That story will get written and published eventually. My not so special idea? On the scrap heap. If it’s not something I can honestly say I’d want badly enough to devote my small percentage of free time to as a reader, it’s not worth my time as a writer. I’m going to have to spend far more time in that story world than any consumer will as the creator of it. It had better grab me by the throat and not let go, and it needs to do it in a single sentence. Because with all the competition for attention in the entertainment world, people need a reason to read any further than that.
Unless your name is Stephen King, “Because I wrote it” is not going to be reason enough. Remember that regardless of the size of your backlist, any story of yours a reader picks up may be the first time they’ve heard of you or read you, and if you don’t knock their socks off, it might also be the last.
We’re not selling self-help or instructional work, where being an expert might be enough to carry you and compel a reader to buy. We’re selling entertainment, escape, fantasy. So we have to capture our audience’s imagination and we have to do it right up front, right now.
Take your current project and put it to the one sentence test. Can you condense your idea into a single compelling sentence that you would find irresistible as a reader? Would it hook your attention and engage your imagination and get you to read further? If the honest answer is no, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start over or to re-envision and re-imagine your core idea until the answer is a resounding, “YES!”
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Writing the Breakout Novel/Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass
The most frustrating phase of my career came when I had sold my first couple of stories, but I wasn’t selling consistently and I hadn’t sold a novel at all. I was almost there. But I wasn’t there yet. I was pretty good, but not great. I’d reached a plateau. I couldn’t see how to improve. I joked that my progress resembled Zeno’s Paradox: I was always covering half the distance to the goal, which I would therefore never actually reach, and the strides I did make kept getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. (I think this still holds true — if the goal is to write the perfect story, I’ll never get there, but I’m always making progress, however little it seems.)
It’s a tough spot. Once you’ve eliminated all the mistakes from your writing, and you’re still not selling, you need to consider — what are you missing? What separates competent stories from great, sellable stories? This may be the hardest hurdle to overcome on the road to getting published and establishing a career. Because once you’ve internalized the concrete skills, what’s left is intangible. Things like voice, theme, meaning. The “so what?” factor. Why did you write this story and how do you get that across in a meaningful way?
Christie Yant identifies three points that separate pretty good from great: structure, voice, and something to say. Here’s how I see those three things:
Structure: Can you identify the beats in your story? The important scenes and pivotal moments? Are they building toward a climax? Or do things just happen? Have you trimmed everything that doesn’t contribute to the story’s meaning? Can you identify a reason for every single element of the story to be there?
Voice: Is every word is in the story there for a reason? Does every image reflect the story and evoke meaning, or is the prose dependent on clichés? Can you tell who is narrating the story just by the words used? Are the words you use, the phrasing, the way they’re put together, appropriate for the character and setting? Does the prose evoke confidence and personality? Does it convince the reader that the author knows what she’s doing?
Something to say: Take a stand in your story. I’ve seen “pretty good” stories that are so careful to remain neutral and inoffensive that they have no power, no punch. I read them and think, “So what?” Don’t be afraid to express an opinion, to dramatize that opinion in the story. If the story’s about war, it should say something about it: bad, good, necessary, pointless, or what. Am I supposed to like or hate the main character by the end of the story? Does it make me laugh or cry? Am I still going to be thinking about the story a day after I’ve read it? Do I, the author, really care about the topics in the story? If I’m writing about something that makes me angry, happy, sad, frustrated, whatever — does that come through? Because it should.
These are tough areas to work on. They involve risk — putting yourself out there. Not playing it safe. It’s a whole lot tougher to think about your emotional attachment to a story than whether or not you’ve got a decent character arc. But in the end, I think the risk is worth it.