Thursday, February 25, 2010

Writing a Good Middle

I actually groaned when I saw this was my chosen topic to write about today.

The thing is, middles are insanely tough to write. Which is why for the first few years of my career, I wrote lots and lots of beginnings. Part of the problem is poorly fleshed out ideas, and this happens as a professional writer as well.

When my friend, Roseanna, and I talk about initial story ideas, we usually have a set up in mind. Like, “Girl crashes on deserted island with two other families.” And then we follow this up with, “Drama ensues.” (Or often, “romance ensues.”) This right here is a recipe for what we call a “sagging middle.”

The first thing you should ask yourself is, “does my main character have a goal?”

People, GIVE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER A GOAL. He or she needs something compelling him through the story, and the surest way to fix a sagging middle is to give your character something to work toward. Because you know what you do then? You throw complications at them.

Say your character wants to be a private investigator and is trying to prove she’s just as tough as the male P.I.s. What kind of complications can you think of? Maybe she’s forced to go into a situation that involves a lot of spiders and she absolutely hates spiders. Maybe she has to partner up with a total chauvinist to get the job done. And toward the end of all this, maybe she’s in a hostage situation and questions if this really is the right line of work for a woman to be in. (That last one would be known as the character’s “darkest moment,” which comes toward the end of the book. More on that later.)

These complications are what carry your book through to a stellar ending. So if you’re having trouble with your middle, the first thing to do is ask yourself if your character has a goal. If so, brainstorm ways to keep them from achieving their goal and voila! A much improved middle.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How much editing is too much?

A reader e-mailed to ask: I have been writing this one story for a very long time. I wrote it out once and then tweaked it to death, so I started again, and now it’s under tweaked and depresses me to read, but I don't want to risk killing it again. How do I find a middle ground that makes it just right?

Excellent question.

I can tell you what’s worked for me, and others should feel free to chime in about experiences they may have had with the over-editing, under-editing issue.

First I’ll say that sometimes I have story ideas that are beyond my current skill set. I had one about 6 years ago that I was dying to write, that I attempted a couple times, but I just never seemed to be able to communicate what I wanted in the way I wanted. I finally decided that I just didn’t know how to write the story yet. I put it away, and I’m just now reaching the point where I feel like I could try tackling it again. So if the issue is that you just can’t seem to get the words on the page the way you want to, it might just be that you need a little more time to study the craft, read other works that are similar, etc.

But of course that’s not always the case. Sometimes writing the story is hard because, well, writing is hard sometimes. My piece of advice is this—if it depresses you to read it, then don’t. Just write. Don’t reread stuff you’ve done, don’t edit the previous day’s work, just write and write and write until you type THE END. Then put the manuscript away for a couple weeks before you start editing.

When you have that breather from the manuscript, it’s so much easier to have a good, clear head about what you’ve written. Often times, after the breather, I’ll look at a scene I really struggled with and be able to immediately pinpoint why it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Whereas if I push myself to make it perfect the first time, I spend TONS of time and it still comes out wrong. So I’d say just don’t edit as you go along, save it for the end.

It really sounds like you’re just a little too close to the project right now. If you have a writing friend, I’d ask them to read it and offer insights. If you don’t—which I didn’t until around I was 22 and went to my first writing conference—then take a few weeks off from it. Read an excellent craft book, like On Writing by Stephen King or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and give yourself some space.

Got a question? E-mail me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing a Good Opening Scene

Okay, this is a really big topic and there’s lots of ways to go about it, so I thought I’d just start with some basics for now.

Here are a few things that make a good opening:

1. Writing a good first line, which we talked about last Thursday.

2. You should almost always start with your main character. I’m sure there are great books out there that are exceptions to this rule, but start with your main character.

3. Drop us right into the action. We don’t need big pages of set-up, of description. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is writers who spend the first several pages showing us what their main characters normal life is like. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the reader needs that to understand what’s about to happen, but they really don’t.

These are the opening lines to Me, Just Different (which seems a little vain to use as an example, but I’m not sure about copyright laws for other books, and I know I’m safe using mine.)

I wanted to refuse Eli, but I couldn’t after the night we’d
had. At the snap of the gas pump, he pulled back from the
kiss and looked into my eyes, awaiting my reaction. If my
giving in surprised him, it didn’t show. He smiled, and instead
of saying what I already knew—that getting together was a
mistake—I forced myself to smile back. Just like that, I became Eli’s
See how we’re starting right in the middle of what’s going on? And even without a few pages of us hanging out with single, care-free Skylar, you get the message that this is a weird day for her, and that something strange happened last night that has now forced her into this relationship with Eli. So plunk us right down in the middle of the action.

4. In your opening scene, give your main character something to do, a decision to make, a problem to solve. It doesn’t have to be The Big Problem that eventually comes his or her way, but just something that gets your main character active, and shows our reader something important to them.

To carry on with our Me, Just Different example, these are the paragraphs that follow what’s written above:

“You should come to the game tonight,” Eli said, unhooking
the nozzle from the Land Rover’s ever-thirsty tank. If
he didn’t have a gas guzzler, I couldn’t help bemoaning,
the kiss might never have happened. “Skylar, did you hear me?”
I ordered my mind to return to our conversation. “Sorry.
Lisa and I already talked about it. We’ll be there.”
Eli’s eyebrow quirked with amusement. “She and John
must be ‘on’ this week.”
“Who can keep track anymore?”
He ripped his receipt from the kiosk and then
surveyed my face. “I don’t want us to be like that.”
Now Eli seemed nervous, like he knew he’d served me
another chance to back out. Jodi’s face danced before my
eyes, but last night’s blur of frightening events
trumped the promise I made her three years ago. Last night Eli was
the only secure object, the only reason I’d woken up this
morning with everything still intact.
I’d been confused, of course, to wake up in the back
of Eli’s new car. I’d sat up, my head killing me. I found
Eli sleeping in the fully reclined driver’s seat, his mouth
hanging open, his breathing loud. I could remember only
bits and pieces of how I’d come to be there, but I
recalled enough to know one thing—I owed him for the night
But what a horrible reason to become his girlfriend
I opened my mouth, fully intending to back out, but
when I looked at him, at those dark blue eyes, I couldn’t
do it. Would it really be so bad to date Eli Welling?
We’d been friends for years and probably would have gotten
together before now if Jodi wasn’t in the picture. And he’d
taken such good care of me last night.
I sucked in a deep breath. “Don’t worry. We won’t be
like them.”

Stephanie Morrill, Me, Just Different,
Revell Books, a
division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2009. Used by permission.

Within the first page and a half, Skylar has made a decision that’s going to color the rest of the series.

So start by checking your opening scene for the above four things: Good first sentence, starting with your main character, plunking us down in the action, and making your main character active. Questions? Qualities of a good opening scene that I totally spaced in my woozy, still-getting-over-my-stupid-cold state of mind?

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Borrowing plots from other books

A reader e-mailed me to ask: Sometimes I find myself borrowing from plots of other books. Is that bad? How do I stop that?

In certain situations, yes, it’s bad. Plagiarizing is taken super seriously and can totally destroy careers. So, if you’re writing as a career, then yeah, I’d avoid it.

If you’re in high school (which this question-asker is) or still just testing the waters with this whole “writing thing”, then it can be an okay tool to use for now if it’s not something you plan to publish. It can be a good way to stretch creative muscles, particularly if you examine what it is that makes this particular plotline so good. You can use that as a springboard to come up with plots of your own that do the same thing, just in a more “you” kind of way.

For example, say you’ve just read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and you now want to write a time travel romance of your own. There’s nothing wrong with kicking around the idea for about 30 pages or so and seeing what you come up with. (I call this “wroodling.” Doodling, but for writers.) But if you want to do something more than wroodle, I’d suggest instead studying Ms. Niffenegger’s fabulous work and doing some deep thinking about what makes that story so fabulous, why it hits home, etc. And then, with the answers you come up with, craft a story idea of your own.

All writers study the work of other writers. (Or they don’t, if they should.) When a book particularly touches you, or when a phrase really sings, take time to notice and dwell on it. Is it the word choice? The symbolism? The tone?

Like right now I’m reading Julie Klassen’s The Silent Governess, which is a fabulous read. She used the phrase, “He sat in a puddle of sunshine,” and I just LOVE that. I’ve never seen that used before. Am I going to steal it? No. It’s Julie’s, and even if nobody ever noticed that I took it from her, I would know and that’d be enough. So instead, I sat there and thought about different ways to describe the scene. (A slice of sunshine, a pool of sunshine, a splash of sunshine, etc.)

So the way to “grow out of” borrowing plots and such from other writers is to instead study them, then think of the way you would say or change it. Your uniqueness is the best thing you bring to your story.

Have a question? E-mail me, and I'll do my best to answer.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing a Good First Line

Next week we’ll talk about writing a good opening, but a good opening starts with a good opening line.

The first line of your book is insanely important. Like, I cannot stress to you how important it is. It sets the attitude of the narrator, the mood of the scene, and—when done properly—draws in your reader.

The first thing you should ask yourself about your first line is, “Does this prompt a question?” Does it make the reader ask why? Does it have a bit of intrigue to it?

Here are some examples, pulled from my “favorites” book shelf:

“Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie.” – The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot

What is she lying about? Why does she have to lie? Who is she lying to? (And, ironically, Mia’s been lied to all her life, so this first line is extra fab.)

“The name of the song is “This Lullaby.” At this point, I’ve probably heard it, oh, about a million times.” -This Lullaby, Sarah Dessen (Yes, that was technically two sentences.)

What’s the deal with the song? Why has she heard it so often? I also love the clear, strong voice of Remy coming through.

“The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start.” – The River King, Alice Hoffman
Oooh, intrigue. Why did they pick that location? And how has it been a disaster?

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” – Emma, Jane Austen

I just picked this book to make myself look smart. Just kidding. The question this makes me ask is, what’s about to distress and vex her?

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” – Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
So many questions. Why’s she about to die? And how? And who’s killing her? And why? And why has she had lots of reasons to think about death recently? An excellent first line, and about a hundred times better than the first line of chapter one, which is, “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.” While this does prompt a question (Where is she going?) it’s not great.

So take a look at your first line and see what kind of question it asks, and what kind of tone it sets. If you’re brave enough to open it up to public opinion, you can post it in the comments section.

Happy writing everyone!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Losing Interest

A reader e-mailed me to ask: I write part of a story, then lose interest or stop liking it. What do I do about that?

Yeah, this is a tough one. Particularly if you haven’t already sold the manuscript, so there’s no deadline looming before you, pushing you to continue.

You have a couple options in this situation.

The first is to set the story aside. I’ve done this, as have most of the writers I know. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve burned out on a manuscript, taken some time off to work on another project, and then been able to return to the first project with much more enthusiasm and finish the story. In fact, I did this multiple times with the first book I wound up publishing, Me, Just Different. So don’t hesitate to give yourself a breather.

Another option—and one that I’ve used when I’m on a deadline and no-finish is no-option—is to ask yourself why you don’t like it. Why is it not interesting to you anymore, and what could you do to make yourself interested? This happened to me with book three in The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, So Over It.

I realized that a character I loved and relied on had been missing, so I found a way to pull him back in. I did a really horrible job of it initially. I did it in about one scene, when it needed to be six or seven. But at the time, I didn’t have the enthusiasm to write six or seven scenes without this guy. So I wrote the bare essentials, and in the second draft I was able to expand and make it read less sucky.

Hope this helps!

Have a question? E-mail me.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What makes a good Main Character?

I talked last Thursday about what makes a book good. One of the first things I listed was a main character I can root for. Let’s talk a bit about what that does and does not mean.

There are two types of main characters:

An ordinary character to whom the extraordinary happens (think Jim Halpert from The Office ... and we can debate at a later date if he's truly the MC), or a character who’s already a hero (think Jack Bauer).

One of the mistakes I see new writers make (and something I also did early on) is making their main characters pretty much perfect. They have a zinger for everything, everyone around them thinks they’re fabulous (except the antagonist, who’s a total loser anyway), and they adapt easily to changes in their life. No one wants to read about perfect characters. Perfect characters are flat and boring. Give your characters flaws. And if you’ve got the “hero” variety of main character, be sure to give them something “human.” A weakness, a bad habit, etc.

Something I’ve recently started doing, which is a technique I learned from the fabulous Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck, is finding a lie for my character to believe about him or herself. Like in the manuscript I’m working on now, Anna believes there’s nothing special about her. She’ll spend the rest of the book believing this, until toward the end when someone (haven’t quite worked out who yet…) will teach her about what makes her special.

So if your main character is falling a little flat, first make sure you’ve given them some flaws. If you have, try giving them a lie to believe about themselves/the world around them and see what that does for your story.

Questions? Shoot me an e-mail and we'll talk about it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Finishing what you've started

A reader asked me: Do you have tips for me to concentrate, stay on task, and actually finish a story?

Why, yes I do.

There are lots of ways I could answer this - pick a subject you're passionate about, develop a plot with plenty of complications, create interesting characters, etc.

But say you've done all that, and you're still struggling. I think just about every writer, published and unpublished alike, have been there.

This is the advice that worked for me, the advice that really jumpstarted my writing routine, and now I'll happily pass it on to you: Just write the thing.

Stop editing. Stop fretting about whether or not your idea is stupid. Stop agonizing over what your English teacher would think of your iffy grammar. Stop doing anything that isn't getting words on the page.

First drafts are really horrible, icky things. This is true for everybody. Authors you love and admire write really sucky first drafts. It's fine for you to do that too.

When I stopped editing as I wrote, pausing to reread everything I'd already written, rethinking the background of my main character, I started producing books a lot faster.

For me - and for a lot of writers - the hardest part of the process is the first draft. I like to get it done as quickly as possible, and then spend the next couple drafts fleshing out characters, adding sensory details, and stressing out about if I've lost all my talent.
Hope this answers your question.

Do you have a question you'd like to see answered? E-mail me, and I'll take care of it. If you're wondering about it, someone else probably is too.