My copy editor noticed something about my stories: I like lists.
There's the list a character keeps in her phone on the Do's and Don't's of Shoplifting.
There's the list a grandmother keeps on her fridge for what not to feed the dog.
When my editor pointed out my habit, at first I thought: Oops, better stop that. Then I reconsidered. This could be a "thing" in my stories. Every writer needs some kind of trademark, why not lists?
Lists are practical, easy to read, and they can offer clues to the character or plot.
I also post numerous blogs here that are lists.
I like lists. In honor of their awesomeness, let me offer three ideas for using lists in your story.
1. Grocery lists. If I don't write down what I need, I will leave the store with things I'm hungry for now. When I get home, I will have to eat chocolate and mini peppers for dinner. This is not good. Lists help us remember the important stuff. What if your character had to go to the grocery store and forgot something on his list? He'd have to go back. Who might he run into?
2. Birthday lists. Thanks to Google, all my friends' birthdays show up on my calendar. A calendar is a great place for lists because it's all organized by a need to know. How might your character use a calendar in your story?
3. To Do lists. I don't know about you, but my "to do" lists are a mish-mash of so many things. "Make dentist appt; research Vitamin D; send my son a fan... I love "to do" lists because they have no category. It is merely a collection of all the random things that come to mind that must be done. What if your character found someone else's "To Do" list? What might be on it?
These are a few ideas for using lists in your writing. How do you employ a list in your stories? Please share your ideas with us.
If you've ever been part of an office, faculty, or team, you've participated in energizers. These are quick activities that motivate or bond members of group. Funny thing is, many of them can be used to help you build your characters.
Consider: Two Truths and a Lie.
In this activity, members write down three facts about themselves. One is a lie. During the course of a meeting, day, or term, members get to know each other. After time, they might be able to pick out each other's lies. It's also a way to bond. You learn about things you have in common, or you learn things you simply didn't know about each other.
In your story, you can play this with your characters. Every character has a lie he believes about himself.
I'm incapable of love.
I am not a good friend.
I am perfect.
I cause trouble wherever I go.
As you develop your characters, think about what are the truths and what are the lies. Give life to each. See where they take the story and character. Who believes the lies? Who can't believe the truths? This will help develop other characters.
Know your characters before the story begins. What kind of lies would this type of person need to believe in order for the plot to develop the way you want it to? This helps build a real arc that develops naturally alongside the plot.
Study other novels. What lies did your favorite characters believe until they learned their lesson? FIGHT CLUB is probably one of the best stories where a character carries his lie deep into the story.
Share your thoughts. What are you working on now, and what lie does your character believe?
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.
We've visited this topic before, but it's worth another look.
The school day ended as it had begun with the tin rattle of an ancient bell system designed to wake the dead or anyone within a football field of the boxy building.
True story. It’s how I spend my workday sixteen times over, five days a week.
Only once, do you make the mistake to stand directly beneath one of the clattering devils.
However, the jolting rattles own your attention, and there’s no doubt it’s time to get to class.
Oh for the clang of a great story opening. Previously, I’ve shared my favorite YA openers.
This week, my last group of creative writing students for the year works on story beginnings. In a few weeks, we’ll tackle endings.
How do you start your stories? With action? Mystery? Deep thoughts? Humor? Here are our favorites.
Reflect on life. No one does this better than YA it boy, John Green.
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” –Paper Towns by John Green
Reveal theme. For my students, Walter Dean Meyers has a knack for setting up his stories' themes right at the start.
“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won’t hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they’ll start talking about it and soon it’ll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.” –Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Meet our hero/heroine. My favorite adult and young adult author, Neil Gaiman, is a master at opening his stories. One of my favorites:
“There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” –Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Meet someone important/close to our hero/heroine. The people we love to hate from the delightful imagination of J.K. Rowling.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” -Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Begin with trouble. Many of today's dystopians begin this way, reminiscent of war stories detailing actual history.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Begin with a mystery. Make your readers want to know why right from the very first line.
"All this happened. More or less." -Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
"You better not tell nobody but God." - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What's your favorite way to open a story? Share them in the comments below.
Let's start May with a writing contest!
What do you know about beginnings and endings? A great story might begin with a brilliant thought, random line, or quirky character, but at some point you'll need to get organized. In the meantime, just write. Regurgitate those ideas swimming about your head. Splatter every thought on the page. When you're ready, when the well's dry, step back and begin that plan. Mold the pieces together into a beautiful tale.
Writing challenges are a great way to practice your writing skills. This week, we take an opening and closing and craft a short tale. Call it flash fiction, mini tale, bitesize story, or whatever.
Below, you'll find three beginnings and three endings. You mix and match. Fill in the middle with a compelling story (as compelling as a few hundred words can be). Have fun!
Rules: choose one beginning and one ending, fill in the rest; keep it to 300 words or less.
1. (Landscape) The summer sun faded and night set in...
2. (Dialogue) "Stop it, Josh! You never listen."
3. (Meet the hero/heroine) She never loved winter, but it was different now since the events of the past summer.
1. "I know. It's not really what I expected at all, but I sure am glad you're here."
2. A single apple tree stood on the burnt hillside.
3. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and walked out the door.
Open to all ages!
This site is filled with many ideas. Feel free to search through my Blog for tips. Try these ones about sensory writing.
You have until May 15 to submit your entry. Paste it in the comments below or add a link with the entry on your own site.
The winner will be featured on this site and receive acclaim on Twitter and Facebook.
Starting a story is easy, you've got an idea, and you start to tell it. In the middle, you begin to have some real fun, unveiling new characters, butting up against obstacles, adding twists and turns to your character's journey. Then comes time to finish.
Sccrrrcchhh! Hit the brakes, Alice, we're coming in for a landing.
The end is where the trouble begins.
For the last two weeks, I've been at the end of my current manuscript. I've two chapters and one half to go. I've written less than five hundred words in the last seven days.
Part of me is stalling - How should it end? What will the readers expect? Shall I surprise them?
My daughter recently read (struggled through?) Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It wasn't until the very last line that she shouted with glee, "I get it! I get it!" You don't want your reader to struggle to the end.
Which brings me to the other 'part of me', the writer who's struggling, who doesn't want it all to end. After all, the main character (MC) and I have been head buddies for months. I'm gonna miss him when he goes. I know, I know, it's time to end it all.
In Blake Snyder's book on the writing craft, Save the Cat, he suggests that the final image match the opening image - as an opposite. If you opened with your MC in a pile of garbage after his girlfriend threw out him and the trash, your final image should showcase him clean and engaging in a scene that reflects he's learned his lesson. Nice and tidy, that's how Blake liked his scripts.
But life isn't a script, so you'll need to uncover other ways to end your story. Blake's is good and plausible, but readers enjoy variety. You don't want every book to end 'happily ever after'.
Here are other ways to close out your MC's tale.
1. Surprise! Life is full of surprises. You scrimp and save for college, study hard, receive several acceptance letters then your grandfather dies and you need to take over the family business. It puts a twist in your original plans, but it might work out for the better. You may save the restaurant that old granddad had run into the ground. Try a surprise ending, but lay out a few breadcrumbs before you draw back the curtain.
2. End Sooner than Later. Readers sometimes appreciate knowing twenty pages before the book finishes exactly why Aunt Betty set fire to the family letters. Now you have several dozen pages to tie up loose ends and explain several of the confusions you carefully plotted along the way. Click here for ideas to create loose ends?
3. Goal! The most logical ending occurs when your MC has solved his initial problem. If the conflict revolved around locating a missing child thought abducted by a crazy relative or the neighbor, once the child's been located, you can bring your story to a close. Catch the bad guy, and all is well.
or is it?
4. Gotcha! Taking #3 and twist it. The kid's home, but it wasn't either the neighbor or whacky Uncle Lew. The kid knows this, but he can only identify a few traits of his napper. This might take another thirty or more pages, or it might be the opening to a sequel.
Don't forget, once you've finished your story, it's time to revise. Let the fun begin again! (Besides, no matter how you end your fabulous story, someone will tell you how you should have ended it. Even if your Stephen King.)
What's your favorite story ending? What do you avoid at all costs? Share your thoughts with us.
How many times have you backed into the front door? It's not a trick question. I will take a wild guess, however, and say - never. Okay, maybe that one time when you carted in grandma's lacquered dining table. Other than that, though, most people walk in the front door faced forward. Eyes forward.
Remember that when penning the opening of your next story.
Expositions set the foundation for what's to come, but they also invite the reader in. So open that door and invite!
This past week, I've been furiously and back-achingly editing and revising my latest manuscript. (What do you think of my new opening?)
Here's a down and dirty list of what I think you need in the first five pages.
Exposition Must Haves:
*click the headings for great YA examples of each trait
1. A world - immediately drop readers into your characters' world. Where are we? Let us smell, taste and live it. Not too much. Just enough so we feel included and safe. (Remember: show, don't tell. Not: It was April 3, 2016, and the San Francisco Chronicle sat on the kitchen table. Try: I trolled the Internet for last night's A's results. Can't Billy Beane keep any player for more than two seasons?)
2. A Hero/Heroine - who are we going to root for? What's that MC have that I don't? Can I relate? Don't make him too perfect. (Not: Lilly Lane studied her third A paper of the day while she waited for Skip Target, the Tigers' star pitcher and a sure bet for Prom King. Try: Lilly Lane shoved the history test in her backpack. One C wouldn't kill her. If she scored an A on the next exam, maybe she could convince Skip Target she'd make a great tutor.)
3. A Catalyst - drop that shoe! We need to know what's at stake for our hero pronto! If you're not going to tell us until the end of the first or second chapter, you better leave us a trail of juicy clues. (Your catalyst is the event that sparks the plot. Something happens that propels the hero on his quest. If she's the school bully's favorite victim, maybe she gets suspended for a food fight that she didn't start. If he's depressed to the point of suicide, maybe he's sent to the school counselor who suggests he join their support group. The catalyst can be subtle or mind-blowing.)
4. A Problem - this we need to learn on the first page or three. I mean, what's going on that we care if there's another page to this story? If the problem is multi-layered, just give us one layer. In the "Wizard of Oz", Dorothy runs away and needs to get home. That's the main problem. Of course, she has several other adolescent troubles that lead to her leaving in the first place. (Problems can unfold, disappear or appear solved, reemerge with a vengeance, multiply or simplify - any or all of that happens as your story progresses, not in the first three pages.)
Inclusive in all is VOICE. Must have voice. That's not an exposition kind of thing, though. Voice carries your story from start to finish, so I don't include it in my Exposition Must Haves (but it most certainly is a MUST HAVE).
Share your WIP's first 100 words below. What are your Exposition Must Haves?
This month, we will explore PLOT. Plot includes the problem or central conflict to your story, how it will be resolved, who will resolve it, who will triumph, who will fail and all of that.
Traditionally, a plot structure consists of:
Exposition (story set-up; intro of main character; setting; time of calm)
Introduction of conflict
Attempts to solve conflict
Plot is the purpose of your story, the reason your protagonist wakes up in the morning, the force that causes your reader to turn the page. Everyone wants to know - what's going to happen now? Google "story plot" and you will uncover numerous models and structures for writing a story.
There's the Zen way: wake up, go about your day, and it will come to you.
There's the Professor's way: study great writers and uncover their structure.
There's the Lazy way: just write, plot will develop somehow just because you're writing something...err...moving your pen...
Now, I made all those up. Sort of. From talking with other writers, reading about other writers, I've discerned that these are three obvious ways someone might construct plot.
Today, let's talk more about that central problem. Specifically, how do you come up with one?
For me, it's a mixture of strategy and organic nurturing. I collect story ideas in a notebook, in my phone, on a pad of paper by my bedside, in the squares of my desk calendar. When I say that I 'collect' story ideas, I mean that I am constantly thinking about problems I encounter or someone encounters on a daily level, and I say to myself, "Hmm, would that make a good story?" Usually, that question is followed by a "It would if...". And that's how I come up with plot. And a "and, so" and you've got a whole premise.
Kidding. Sort of.
Think of your story's central problem like a scientist. You see a problem, so you come up with a hypothesis. When you do ------, this happens; so what if you do --------? What might happen now?
1. A boy and girl love each other [when you do this], but their parents hate each other. When the teens trick their families into renting adjoining cabins at a summer camp [what if you do this?], they wonder if love really is stronger than hate [what might happen now?].
2. Kimberly, a chubby teen, bares the brunt of vicious high school rumors [when you do this]. In order to fight back, she decides to get in shape over summer break [what if you do this?]. She loses weight and gains confidence, returning to school in September a leaner Kimberly, ready to seek revenge on her tormentors [what might happen now?].
Stuck for ideas? Troll your TV cable provider's movie choices. Read each premise. Which ones appeal to you? Write them down, then change one or two things and see what you come up with. This is a great exercise for practicing pitches. The late Blake Snyder ("Save the Cat") tells writers not to start their project until they know what it's about and what's at stake.
Think like a scientist, write like a screenwriter.
Share your thoughts below.