Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
As the darker months approach, I emerge from my summer writing cave, bleary eyed but invigorated. Because I am a teacher, I relish the off-time to work on my writing. This past summer, I spent ten-twelve hours each day editing and revising my current manuscript.
I'd like to share a little bit of my process with you, then I'd love to hear how you revise. Something I hear from other writers: how do you know when you're finished?
Revising is like running down hill: you have to put on the brakes at some point and try not to scrape your face. I think I am at that point. I think.
This post is not about setting up a new story. It's about what to do once you've written your first draft and combed through it at least once or twice to see what you've written. I don't consider those revision stages. That's still part of the writing. For me, when I'm pumping out my story, I just go. I have a plan, that's true, but I'm writing non-stop. When I get to the end, I go back, read it, fix stuff, read it again, fix more stuff. I do this until it feels solid.
Then I put it away.
When I come back to it--weeks or months later--I see it through fresh eyes. Now I'm ready to revise.
Here's what revision looks like for me:
1. Brew coffee
2. Drink coffee
3. Turn off social media
4. Gather resources nearby
5. Get chocolate
6. Eat chocolate; think about lunch; turn social media back on...
7. Return to step 1
8. Open my document (yes, there are distractions until I get down to business)
9. Send my document to my Kindle
10. Read my story like a book (this is an amazing trick I learned from an author)
11. Mark up awkward phrases, typos, grammatical errors, etc., using NOTES
12. Re-open my document (for me, this is in Scrivener); make corrections from my Kindle NOTES
13. Share my story, chapters, opening, whatever, with my Critique Partners
14. Review their feedback; decide what to take and what to leave (remember, it's your story)
15. Now I revise.
Revision is the tearing apart and reconstruction of your story. When you first sit down, you might not even know what the story is really about until you get to the end. That's how it is for me. Steps 1-14 are actually the foreplay to revising.
Revision is messy, heart-breaking, frustrating, really, really hard. You have to get rid of characters who are in the way, develop characters who are too thin, tighten plots, destroy plots.
It's not easy, but when you get through this process, you have a story. And that's a beautiful thing.
What is your process? I'd love to hear it.
That's my story, what's yours?
You've heard the terms plotter and pantser. Which one are you?
I'll give you a hint about me: I'm a Virgo.
In my own regular life, I plan my day, leave myself sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, set alarms to remind me about appointments or what to pick up at the store. I don't leave things to chance. Certainly not my memory.
I plot my day, so of course I plot my books.
Why? For me, it sends events in motion. If I know what's coming, I can lay the groundwork with intention. Instead of taking the fun out of writing, planing keeps me on point and my stories tighter. That makes me happy.
Here are my five plotter must have's:
1. Alarm Clock: you can't write if you're still in bed. I teach, so for most of the year, I'm working during my favorite time to write. What to do? I set my alarm clock thirty minutes or more before I need to get up. Since getting up is usually at 6:30, I try to get up at 6 or 5:30. Otherwise, I will write at night. It all depends on my day. You can't schedule creative, so I need to write when time avails me.
2. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT: I discovered Snyder's easy to follow beats two years ago at a SCBWI conference. Three authors attested to it, gave us all a quick how-to and why-to, and I was sold. I outline my plot to the beats of Snyder's three-act outline, tweak what I need to, and follow this when I set up my chapters and map my character arcs. This saves time and frees me up to focus on the story and creative process.
3. Scrivener: Oh, how I love my Scrivener! This writing app puts everything I need at my fingertips (my keyboard fingertips). I have written many blog posts about this tool's awesome features; check them out if you want. The best part of Scrivener? I can't choose one thing, but I do love the character and setting templates and the ability to upload pictures for both. Right now, I'm editing my new YA mystery. The revision mode lets you write in a different color, which makes it easy to find your new ideas after hours of editing.
4. Critique partners: Of course you can have critique partners if you pants your way through stories, but I can't let a blog post like this go by without a shout-out to my dear crits Gwynne Jackson and Jessica Gruner. Critique partners are vital at each stage of your writing. Whether you are planning, writing, editing, or revising, these smart people will give you the feedback you need to make your story better. I brainstorm plots, pluck their brains when a plot point goes awry, and take in their suggestions when I finished my story and am preparing to edit.
5. A good kind of pressure: This can come from anyone and anywhere. Your family, friends, Twitter buddies, neighbors, or colleagues. But no one can apply that necessary pressure to get you writing and thinking about your story if you don't tell them what you are up to. Let the world know you are writing the next bestseller. Locate beta readers for feedback, too. Their feedback and suggestions or whoops and wows will motivate you to keep going.
Whether you plan your story scene-to-scene before you write or sit down in front of a blank page and let it flow, you need support. I love to connect with other writers. Please find me on Twitter or Facebook. Let's connect and support each other.
That's my story; what's yours?
Every night before I sleep, I pray to the grammar gods to grant me one more inch of knowledge. No matter how many times I look up a rule in STRUNK & WHITE or THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, I can't retain it.
Even though I call myself a writer, I sit and wait for someone to knock on my door and say, "The gig's up, lady. If you don't know the difference between lie and lay, get out of the game!"
So far, no one has shown up. This leads me to the conclusion that writers don't need to be lords or ladies of the Oxford comma or champions of the ellipsis.
Hi, my name is Ellen and I misuse grammar.
Lucky for me--and the rest of you!--there is the internet.
Today, we will practice with my favorites: homonyms.
First, it helps to know this:
The prefix homo- means "one and the same."
The root graph means "word or story."
The root nym means "name or word."
The root phone means "sound."
HOMOGRAPH: each of two or more words having the same spelling but different meanings (lead the parade/lead pipe; fly away fly).
HOMOPHONE: each of two or more words pronounced the same but having different spellings or meanings (new/knew; red/read).
Both of these types of words are known as homonyms because they share something the same--spelling or pronunciation.
Fun with homographs:
You can bank on me putting this money in the bank.
He refused to back the horse with the broken back.
A tear rolled down her cheek after seeing the tear in her wedding gown.
Have your own fun with these: digest, type, match
Fun with homophones:
John won one rose for his sweetheart.
She stared into the sun as her son flew his kite.
"Wait!" she cried. "I don't want to see my weight today."
Try your fun with these: cell/sell; tea/tee; bare/bear
It's pretty near impossible to know how to use every word in the English language. Give yourself a break. Write because you love to write and let the Internet and grammar gods help you with the rest.
You are a fantastic writer because you can tell a story, not because you know the proper use of bare .
What are your grammar gripes? Let's talk.
I dare not say these words out loud, but... shhh... come closer, and I'll whisper them to you.
I think my story is finished.
Don't tell anyone. Not yet. First, I need to make sure I've satisfied the questions with which the story began.
I have worked on my young adult contemporary manuscript for more than a year. I'm not talking the writing part. The writing began in 2013. I'm talking editing and revising. A year. To be precise, fifteen months.
ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY has seen changes in characters, point of view, and plot. It is an entirely different story than the one I began three years ago. It is also an entirely better story.
First, let me tell you why it's better then I'll show you how I know it's finished.
One. I have addressed every concern an agent or editor brought to my attention during contests and querying.
Two. I have examined and corrected every detail my amazing critique partners raised a red flag to.
Three. I like it. It's a story. The characters are authentic. The MC is fallible.
Now let me show you how I know it's finished using the following five questions.
One. Is the main plot resolved?
I don't want to promise a premise that doesn't pan out. Readers need resolution to the protagonist's problem. Resolution does not necessarily mean a happy or satisfying ending. It just needs to be plausible.
Two. Did the protagonist solve it (YA needs this)?
In YA, the protagonist needs to be the one to solve her problem. Adolescents seek empowerment; adults screw with their destinies enough in the real world.
Three. Has the character grown or changed from the opening scene?
Consider Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey narrative. When the reader meets the MC, there must be something the reader asks or observes, something he expects to change.
Four. Have all the minor plots resolved?
Your A story and B story and all minor journeys that arose along the way must each come to a close.
Five. Have all the "teasers" been dealt with or resolved?
In Act I, you've no doubt introduced red herrings or secondary characters with their own story. These all need closure. If Mom has been looking for a job throughout the story, and you keep referring to it, she either needs to land one or make a comment about going back to school. Something. Don't leave teasers teasing (unless you're writing a sequel... but that's another story...).
If you think you're story is over, answer the five questions. What other questions do you think writers need to ask?
Share with us here.
Word choice matters.
If you are a writer, choosing the wrong word at the wrong time could land you in a mess.
When Alice tells the Mad Hatter that she has said what she's meant because she meant to say it, he scolds her: "You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see.""
Words matter, and so does the order in which we use them.
Today is Leap Day, a perfect time to review the use of verbs. Let's start with leap.
Synonyms include: hop, jump, spring, vault, bound, hurdle.
However, those words refer to the act of leaping, such as: I leapt over the boulder. An equivalent sentence could be written using any of the aforementioned synonyms. Not true if you wrote this sentence: The company leaped at the opportunity to raise production. You wouldn't say The company vaulted or hurdled at the opportunity. You could say they jumped or sprang.
Say what you mean.
My esteemed critique partner, Gwynne Jackson, reminds me often that the best word to use is the simplest. If the frog hopped onto the lily pad, say so. Don't get fancy by saying it vaulted onto the lily pad. Do frogs vault?
Varying words and sentence helps your writing flow, but don't get overzealous. If the shoe fits...
When your vocabulary needs a boost or the word you've written doesn't sound right, take time to research the right word. For that, there are many resources.
Scrivener If you use this amazing writing app, you know all about its dictionary and thesaurus. Double tap the word in your document and bring forward a dictionary page to examine.
Etymolonline I use this in the classroom with my students. Type in a word and learn the word origin, common usage, synonyms, antonyms, or more.
OneLookDictionary Another creative site that offers up loads of suggestions to help you find the right word.
Whatever you are working on right now, take the time to choose the right words.
This week, I tackle another completed manuscript and ready it for queries. STARS IN MY POCKET is my fourth YA novel. Two books are part of the Logos Publishing House bookshelf and a third awaits an agent's love. If ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY doesn't land an agent, I'm hoping STARS will.
For the past four weeks, I've been editing, revising, sharing, and repeating the process on both manuscripts. Although the task is tedious and sometimes frustrating, I know the attention will only improve and tighten the stories.
Since this is my current world, I thought I'd share my steps with you. I'd love to hear others' methods when it comes to fine-tuning a new manuscript.
Here's my story...
After I've written the final chapter, I will put my work away for at least a month. While it sits and finds itself, I busy myself with other writing projects and catch up on my reading.
Next, I read through the story on my computer (in its Scrivener form) and listen to the flow, watching for key plot points and erroneous tangents.
If the story flows, I begin re-reading the book for as many major characters as it has. If there are three main characters, I re-read it three times, focussing on that character, his back story, details, arcs to plot and other characters. Then I take a read-through for the collection of minor characters, bringing them more to life.
I keep this editing/revising process moving for weeks and sometimes months.
Each time I read through the book, I edit and revise sentence structures, word usage, and grammar.
When I'm close to the end, I read through for filter words (words that pull the reader out of the story). Scrivener is great for this.
My final revision mode is on Kindle. I compile my manuscript, send it to Word where I format it, and email it to my Kindle app.
I read it like a book, but I use the notes and highlight colors to catch errors that slipped past on my computer.
Sometimes, I find major plot issues. In that case, I might go through a major revision and repeat the editing/revision process all over.
Throughout this time, I am meeting with critique partners and sharing with beta readers. All feedback helps.
Today, ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY awaits my critique partners' read-throughs to help tighten the plot. Two agents liked the writing and voice, but both had trouble with the plot.
STARS IN MY POCKET is on my Kindle with notes. I've read 68%, and will next go back to Scrivener to repair seams and mend holes.
It may not be a perfect process, but it works for me. Soon--I can feel it!--I will get that agent call. Until then, all I can do is edit, revise, rinse, and repeat.
What are your practices for editing your manuscripts? Please share!
Winning NaNoWriMo is no small feat. Committing yourself to writing more than one thousand words each day (a 1.6k average is needed to 'win'), suggests you have what it takes.
But don't stop there. Words on a page do not a story make.
Now comes the fun part. Editing and revising and editing and revising and . . . Time to get to the root of your novel.
Your story is not complete until you've spent days, and weeks, and months combing through its pages, tweaking plot lines, and finessing word usage. The true nugget of your story is often buried deep within the middle of all those thousands of words.
Every writer has his own advice for how to tackle the revision stages. Google til your heart's content, and you can find half a dozen that make sense to you.
I follow Stephen King's: put your first draft away for a month to six weeks before you revise.
Here are six ideas for how to handle revising your first draft.
1. Listen to the King. Put it away and work on anything else but that manuscript for at least a month. You'll return with fresh eyes to discover the hidden beauty (buried deep in chapter six) or the rubbish you wrote to begin the story.
2. Before you revise, write a letter to a friend explaining your book. (You don't need to send it.) Try to get it right in a 35-word pitch. Then dig in revising, go back and read that letter and write a new one. Repeat this process until you've uncovered the true pitch.
3. Revise your draft as many times as you have important characters. Each time you revise, do it with one character in mind. Use his perspective. This is a great way to uncover loose storylines, catch missing or erroneous details (birthdates, eye color, favorite foods, etc.).
4. Cut or combine useless characters. Idea 3 will help you uncover who adds to the plot and who detracts from it. As Mr. King says: "Kill your darlings." (This is also a good time to study all the names used in your story. Be sure they are not easily confusing--too many single syllable names; too many names starting with S, etc.)
5. Create a storyboard of key scenes. Plotters will have already done this. However, do it again. I record each scene on a post-it that I can move around a board. Not all scenes need cutting; some need moving.
6. Share your draft with a trusted partner. If you haven't joined a writing group or located a critque partner, now's a great time to do this. Other writers understand what is a first draft. They won't nit-pick at grammar or spelling. They will tell you what works and what doesn't.
Now, stop reading this blog and get to revising. More tips on revising and editing in the future!
Please share your ideas here.
No matter how far afield I travel, I always return to the senses. This past week, my creative writing students explored writing about sensory detail by describing their hair. (As soon as I have parent consent forms signed, you will be able to read their amazing work.)
We spent time old school talking about the five senses and listing words a writer might use to evoke these senses. Next, we took a color walk to capture all we could find around campus of a specific color. Finally, we closed our eyes and listened to the sounds in the building and room. We even plugged our ears and closed our eyes to see what me might smell.
By the end of the week, students were ready to hone in on one idea and explore their senses. I read them "Hairs" from Sandra Cisneros' THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET to inspire them.
If you want to help your writing come alive, tap into the senses. Five easy ways to add detail to your writing.
1. Sight: select one visual piece of your story (a building, bench, street, tree; something minor). List ten qualities that describe it. Choose three and exaggerate them. Come up with a metaphor to add dimension. (EX: In winter, her neighbor's tree bent like an old woman, dragging its limbs along the tired sidewalk.)
2. Sound: as above, but this time you are finding something your character will hear. (EX: The wheels thumped along the pavement, a steady heartbeat in the night.)
3. Taste: as above, but maybe applying taste to something one wouldn't normally put in their mouth. (EX: I could taste the assignment. Its bitterness coated the tip of my tongue, and I wanted to spit it out onto the just waxed classroom floor.)
4. Smell: as the taste exercise. (EX: His angry words burned in my nostrils; their ashiness wafted inside me.)
5. Texture: this sense offers a variety of options. (EX: Her jagged words cut through me. The night air caressed my cheeks.)
If you are in the middle of a project, find a scene that's lacking life. Infuse it with sensory detail. If this is your first draft, go crazy. Go overboard. Write drunk, edit sober. (Thanks, Mr. Hemingway.) Have fun.
Share your thoughts on the senses below. What works for you?
This past week, I've been taking a fine tooth comb to my current manuscript, sorting through the fodder to uncover the gold. It is a tedious task.
It reminds me of something author Shannon Hale said: Working on a first draft is like "shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles."
I believe at the end of this process, I will need a stronger eyeglass prescription. However, my pain is your gain. Each go through of the manuscript brings me closer to the story I want. I hope these tips are useful.
Here are five important items on my editing checklist.
1. Three or more read-throughs to flesh out the story. You don't really know your story until you get to the end. Sometimes the REAL story doesn't show for several read-throughs. The plot is not the story. Listen to Martin Scorsese explain this.
2. Pluck out filter words (see, watch, look, seem, like, feel, just, that, so, then, etc.). I go through my manuscript once for each of these. I might seek out more than a dozen filter words. Utilize your software's find/replace. (I keep a list of filter words on Scrivener's Scratch Pad.)
3. Review each character for consistency in tone, physical features, word choice, background, and history. That's a read-through for each. This might be another ten or twelve reads of the story, depending on the number of characters. Each time I read with that character in mind, I consider her arc and backstory; I view her as the hero of her own story. This will strengthen the entire novel.
4. Observe the settings for consistency in descriptions, distance irregularities, and vivid portrayals. Consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Their settings become characters in their stories.
5. Review use of language. Look for: overuse of idioms, use of clichés (yikes!), inappropriate synonyms, repeated words, useless words. (This might take three times, but this is the heart of your writing. If you can master use of language in your manuscripts, you will write prose that flows like silk.)
One more: Read your story as someone else. First, you'll need to put your manuscript away for a week or two (more if you can bear it). Next, consider your readers; who are they? what do they look like? Embody that reader, and enjoy your story for the first time. The best way to do this is by downloading a word document and emailing it to your Kindle App. Reading your story on an eReader highlights things you might never notice on your laptop or desktop. (Beta readers and critique partners are great here, too.)
If you've been counting, you'll see I read through my manuscript up to thirty or more times. I never get bored. If I do, I need to go back and fix that.
I would love to hear what you have on your editing checklist. Please share below.