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?
As a teacher and mother of grown children (23 and 19), I love summer. Lots of time to catch up on writing projects, but most importantly: tons of lazing in the sunshine reading.
This summer, I managed to devour five delicious stories. Because I write contemporary young adult, I read books from that genre. However, I also gobble up my favorite adult fiction.
If you want to follow my reading rants, check out my Goodreads page, or click this link to reviews I post here.
Now, check out these five writing tips I learned from the books I read this summer.
High Fidelity: find a line or phrase that ties into your story’s theme. Repeat it throughout your novel. Nick Hornby makes lists. He has a Top Five for almost everything in his life. This works really well for the character (a lonely and serial boyfriend record shop owner) and the theme (finding happiness with one thing).
Al Capone Does My Shirts: make your setting do extra work. In this middle grade read, author Gennifer Choldenko uses 1950s Alcatraz as a backdrop to seventh grader Moose’s caged life looking after his autistic older sister. If she had set this story in the city of San Francisco—where some scenes take place—it wouldn’t have worked as well. The island prison says so much metaphorically for Moose and his family.
Misery: every summer needs at least one creepy Stephen King read. Since I never read the book—just saw the film—I decided I could handle the suspense while reading in the bright sunlight on a California beach. There is so much to learn from this man, but in the case of Misery, it’s all about characters. King knows how to make the most repulsive people likable. Annie Wilkes is a monster, but she’s also a tormented woman with a troubled past, a town against her, and a compulsion for sweets after she’s been BAD. If you write mean characters in your stories, give them a quality that makes readers say, “oh, well, yeah she chopped his leg off, but come one, she’s got those cute porcelain statues.”
That Time I Joined the Circus: like High Fidelity, this story has great recurring hooks and phrases that help us feel safe in an unfamiliar world. JJ Howard introduces us to a young girl who meets tragedy and must leave home to find home. She takes her quirks with her, though. Of course. One thing the girl likes is music. She’s always comparing an event to a song she heard. Howard uses the song title and a lyric in her chapter headings. As we journey from circus land to circus land, from New York to Miami, we always feel at home because of the music.
It Should Have Been a #GoodDay: if you are working on a story with multiple POVs, you might check this quick read by Natalie Corbett Sampson. There are four narrators, each taking us through the same day. As the story heats up, we use the varying perspectives to figure out how things might pan out. One of the narrators is an autistic teenager. His voice is stellar. Because we hear the other characters’ thoughts and feelings, we learn a lot about how other kids see those with differences. This is a perfect format to showcase autism and the fears and prejudices we can carry.
What are you reading? If you picked up a great idea for your writing, please share it in the comments below.
That’s my story, what’s yours?
No matter where you are in writing your story, weather can play a part in moving the action forward, defining a character, or throwing a wrench in the path of good or evil.
Great writers from Shakespeare to Steinbeck have successfully used weather in their stories. If it weren't for the drought, the Joads might never have set out to California. In The Tempest, we can't forget how Prospero used weather for his own good.
Here's how you can hurl lightning bolts at your villains or paint rainbows for your protagonists and get away with it.
PLOT. If you are stuck moving the action forward, change the weather. When your MC steps outside without an umbrella and is caught in a sudden downpour, does he slip into a cafe for a fortuitous encounter with someone? Does he hop on a bus to avoid the weather? Does that bus crash? Is it the wrong bus, and he ends up late for (work, a date, picking up a child)? Insurance companies don't take responsibility for acts of God. Neither must writers. Use storms, landslides, earthquakes. These things happen without notice.
CHARACTER. How do your characters respond to different weather events? Use them to reveal moods, fears, hopes, or long-lost dreams. Maybe every time it rains, your character is reminded of the day his dog died. Or whenever she sees a rainbow, she makes a wish. Don't go overboard. No one likes a cliche. Subtlety is your best move.
SETTING. Last but not least, we must talk about the obvious. Depending on where your story is set, some weather events just won't come up. It's unlikely an earthquake will hit in Iowa or that a monsoon will flood Arizona. If you are writing realistic fiction, study the weather in the area where your story is set. You might discover some freak storm that hit years back. You could use that for a tragic backstory, or it could be the reason for your character's behavior or motivation.
That's my story. What's yours?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below! Happy writing :)
This week, my creative writing students listened to the accordion. Many had never heard an accordion before. They didn't know what it would sound like, and they had no idea what it looked like.
It was a new sensory experience.
To my surprise, several students enjoyed the chaotic old world hum and breath of this most unusual style of music. Of course, there were a few who shot daggers at me with their eyes. So I did what any writing teacher might, I told them to use what they were feeling and experiencing and put it in their story.
It's one thing to try to bring anger into a scene; it's quite another to feel it as you are writing it.
Music allows us to tap into our emotions on many levels.
Try this experiment. As you listen to each musical clip below, pause to write about what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, and imagining. See where the music takes you, your story, or your characters.
Polka Dots remix
Masego x Medasin
The Ballet Edition
Please share your experience with these tracks. I'd love to hear how they impacted your writing.
That's my story. What's yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!
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.