Second Book Syndrome

Second Book Syndrome

This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.

Guest Post from Seana Moorhead

I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.

Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third.  Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.

This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:

(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)

(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)

Image by TréVoy Kelly

(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own

(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.

I like a well structured book.  My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs.  Poor thing!

When in doubt, I research. 

First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.

Image by Erik Stein

Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail?  Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?

Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.

A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).

What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy.  Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline.  It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).

The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.

Image by Gerhard Janson

Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father.  In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.

The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection.  Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful.  There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep.  In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.

Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful.  There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.

What does this mean for my problematic second book and me? 

Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.

I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.

Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.

I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.

Off to write!

Seana Moorhead

Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.

Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?

In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.

If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a dry listing of the stage set?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being followed at night versus in the day.

Sometimes just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff, a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?

Is this scene in the right place in the novel?

Would it help to move a scene closer to the beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain? Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps. They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground; running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…

Is this scene important?

If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement. If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions, all the choreography.

Did I “Get in late and leave early.”?

I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.

Image by Frauke Flohr

Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR —The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.

And the same for leaving early. When a tense action scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to start the next scene.

You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave them wanting more.”

Last Word

Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter, richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as strong as you can is worth the effort.

What is a scene?

What is a scene?

Gwynn Scheltema

I was with a group of accomplished writers last night, discussing emotional shifts in scenes. Part way through, one of the group said, “I understand all this, but my problem is, I can’t get my head around what a scene is in the first place.”

Of course, we all offered up our version of “what a scene is”, but they were somewhat vague definitions and all different. I know for my part, I had to really think to put what I know instinctively into words. Hence this post.

Basic definitions

A dictionary definition describes a scene as “a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book. Synonyms: section, segment, part, clip, sequence”, but when faced with dividing up pages of fiction, that doesn’t really help.

In the film and video world, a scene is generally defined as “the action in a single location and continuous time.” Again, in fiction, that leaves questions. Is a run of internal thought a scene? What if the location changes during a single action? What if the whole book takes place in one location or in one single time unit?

Expanded definitions

Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as if they are happening in real time. (Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.)

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward. (Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner )

A scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over. (What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan)

Never mind the definitions

All of these definitions make good points, and there’s likely no perfect definition that works for every circumstance. It’s largely instinctive, so if it feels to you like a scene, treat it that way.

I think the easiest way to decide if a scene is a scene is to know that every scene must have purpose. Every scene should do these two things:

  • move the story forward—the reader learns new things about the character or the plot events or both.
  • affect dramatic tension —something must change: events escalate, or relationships grow or emotions become heightened or diffused.
Image by Sasin Tipchai

Scenes are building blocks. Most often, they involve an action undertaken by the characters. The reader watches the action unfold “in real time” like watching a movie. They hear what the characters say, they witness the movements they make; they see the setting; and— they learn something new about the plot or the characters. Action and reaction.

A simple description of a setting is not a scene— but a character moving through and noticing that setting in a way that triggers a memory that we then witness as back story played out before us is a scene.

A summary history of a fantasy world is not a scene— but a character discussing that history with another character in dialogue is a scene.

A strong scene is one that has drama (action witnessed; movement and/or dialogue- internal or external); emotion (character reaction that reveals character development), and a sense of time and place (feels real and keeps the reader grounded.)

Image by Wokandapix

How long a scene is, or whether it involves only dialogue or only physical action is irrelevant. My test is to ask myself these things:

  • Does this segment have a purpose? If I removed it would the story be lacking?
  • Does this segment have energy (show don’t tell) or will the reader skip over it?
  • Does the dramatic tension change in some way over the course of the scene?

Last Word

This post just skims the surface, but it’s a start. Explore these links to learn more.

10 Instructional Writing Quotes

10 Instructional Writing Quotes

Inspirational quotes are great for lifting the mood or motivating us to get back into our writing. But today, we give you 10 quotes from creative people that resonate for the craft of writing.

  • Details, details

Good writing is remembering the detail most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.―Paula Danziger

  • Dimensional Characters
Image by HartmutStein

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.—Robert McKee

  • Theme vs. Message

Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.—Michael Hauge

  • Get out of your own way

It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.—Richard Bach

  • Foreshadowing
Image by Logga Wiggler

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.—Hallie Ephron

  • Get right in there

…if you’re intruding too much on a character or the voice of a character, [or] if you find that you’re stepping back from that character and that situation and you’re commenting on it–you’re not doing your job. You need to be as true and as empathic to that moment as possible. You can’t be at a remove.—David Margulies

  • Realism vs. Verisimilitude

Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book. —William Bernhardt

Image by prettysleepy1
  • Adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.—Stephen King

  • Strong Ending

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.—Kurt Vonnegut

  • Writing Like No One is Looking

…write without looking over [your] shoulder. Write it as if no one is going to read it. That’s what frees you. If you can stop thinking about critics, and your editor, and whether your book’s going to make it into the Times, and how long it is going to be on the list, I mean, that can totally free you up.—Terry McMillan

Oops! Big Mistake

Oops! Big Mistake

Gwynn Scheltema

Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?

I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it

“employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”

The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.

I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.

Sloppiness

I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an error-free manuscript as possible.

That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful as we can.

Technical Errors

The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.

Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.

Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4 levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!

And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what we write, as my favourite example here shows:

Research errors

In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.

Entrenched Errors

Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.

Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the “facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still don’t think they believe me.)

Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.

Dangerous Senses Errors

This phrase comes from C. S. Lewis’ book Studies in Words:

“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”

This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.

Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in 1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued. So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi believed.)

Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.

Last Word

So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for next week’s blog for practical suggestions.

Going Forward in Reverse

Going Forward in Reverse

Gwynn Scheltema

The age-old plotter vs. pantser debate always ends with the acknowledgement that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. So to stir the pot a bit this week, I thought I’d throw in the idea of outlining backwards.

Not a new idea

Plotting in reverse is not my idea, and it’s not new. Novelist John Irving uses this method and even takes it a step further:

“I don’t begin a novel or a screenplay until I know the ending. And I don’t mean only that I have to know what happens. I mean that I have to hear the actual sentences. I have to know what atmosphere the words convey. Is it a melancholic story? Is there something uplifting or not about it? Is it soulful? Is it mournful? Is it exuberant? What is the language that describes the end of the story? And I don’t want to begin something – I don’t want to write that first sentence – until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it’s my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you.”

Now this may sound overly dramatic, but I can see how knowing that “atmosphere” would be helpful. If I know that ending as I’m writing the beginning, I can make sure all elements support that ending from the start.

Supporting the Message

Writing a novel is a lot like making an argument. Knowing the conclusion of the argument or the essence of the message you want to convey means that everything that comes before can contribute in some way to that final message.

Say for instance that I’m writing a book that involves a love affair and instead of the two lovers getting together in the end, the guy decides to go home to his wife, so his lover shoots him.

Character: I can give hints of her jealous nature, or her tendency to do rash things. I can set up the evidence that she is capable of taking a life. And as for him, maybe I need to heighten his inability to make decisions or insert scenes where we see him back out of commitments.

Setting and story world: It would be helpful if guns were normal part of her life so that grabbing a gun in that final scene isn’t contrived. And we would know she knows how to use it. Perhaps she works as a park ranger or her father and brothers are all hunters. Maybe she’s a biathlete.

Theme: The theme may now be betrayal or jealousy rather than self-acceptance or trust. I can build this into subplots or other characters either to echo the theme or contrast it.

And notice we are talking here about knowing the ending only. Not outlining the whole novel. Knowing where you’re headed simply allows you to write a tighter and more focussed story.

Smaller segments

The idea can be applied to smaller segments of your novel too. Events in a believable plot all hinge on cause and effect; on action and reaction. Equally, you can think of it in reverse: he did this because she did that, or they are in this situation because this happened yesterday.

Coming at it in reverse can be useful when you get to a point in the story and don’t know how to link to a scene that you know comes up in the future.

For example, if I knew that Clara needed to arrive back at her childhood home just as it was burning to the ground, but right now in the story she is happily away at school with no intention of going home, I can visualize the fire scene and work backwards:

Ask questions

How do you work backwards? Ask questions: What would have happened immediately before this house burning scene to cause it? And what would have happened before that scene to cause that? And so on like dominos to the point in the story where Clara is at school.

Why is the house burning down? Who started it? How are they connected to Clara? Is there a reason they might be so angry or so depressed that they would want to force her to go home?

If the fire is not deliberate, what other things might make Clara come home in the middle of term? Is Clara or someone else ill? How did Clara arrive there………

Now with the scenes slotted in to the next point, I can write forwards again, logically and with purpose. Instead of writing forward with a blindfold, I’m just filling in the blanks.

Last word

Kurt Vonnegut said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

It seems that a step backward in writing, when you don’t know where you’re going, is also a step in the right direction.

Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, it’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMS (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) gets the whole two-hour meeting. Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. But the true gold of CMS is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMS colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution… 

CMS members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMS and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos and more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Gwynn Scheltema. 

Many years ago, as a beginning writer, I decided that the easiest fiction to write was romance. After all, I reasoned, it was shallow and formulaic. It would be easy.

So one summer, I conducted an experiment. I ordered four books in four different imprint series from Harlequin and read them all over July and August. I figured that by the end of summer, I would have that formula down pat!

Dead wrong!

I was wrong. Romance books are not shallow and formulaic. To be sure, they do follow an underlying expectation that the hero and heroine will get together in the end, but that’s where the formula ends.

They span many genres: mystery, suspense, historical; the plots are varied and complicated; the settings global; the characters believable and fascinating. And the writing was, for the most part, good. Some books were stronger than others for me, but I can say that about any genre I read. I realized very quickly that I would have to learn a whole lot more before I ever… if I ever… tackled a romance novel of my own.

Digging Deeper into Romance

red valentine graphicSo where do you go to find out more about the genre? The Romance Writers of America, (RWA) website gives a good overview of the genre as well as information on the romance sub-genres. They describe themselves as “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” There you can also find information of RWA chapters throughout North America including Canada, where you can meet other romance writers and attend workshops and conferences.

Sweet, saucy or sizzling?

One of the things I learned from my experiment was that not all imprints are the same. Some were sweet and innocent, some were downright racy. I wondered if I would ever be able to  write the sex scenes effectively and how to know how much was enough or too much.

Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content. For example, Blaze editors ask for sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of explicitness…an emphasis on the physical relationship…fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism BUT not erotica. The Blaze line must still uphold the Harlequin promise of one hero and one heroine and an implied committed relationship in the end.

Unagented submissions

Some of Harlequin’s imprints require agent representation, but unagented submissions are welcomed for Harlequin Series. Harlequin Series Books (aka “Series Romance” or “Category Romance”) publishes more than 85 titles each month over a wide range of genres.

Your romance

Want to give writing romance a try?

This infographic from Harlequin’s website will help you decide where your romance fits in their imprint series.

Harlequin infographic



Did you know…

Registration for our Spring Thaw 2019 retreat is well underway. Save your spot now!


Editor or Writing Coach?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Ruth E. Walker

It’s been my pleasure to serve as an editor on non-fiction, memoir and novel manuscripts. I’ve offered up my copyediting and proofreading skills to writers wanting a clean manuscript. Some of these manuscripts have gone on to become successful self-published books. And a few have gone on to agents or publishers, finding a home in traditional publishing.

Of course, no writer is perfect (even you, Ms. Atwood) and all books have benefitted from a good editor. However, some writers look for an editor for their manuscript when what they really need is a writing coach.

Whenever I’m asked to quote for an edit, I read an excerpt first. I’m looking for narrative skill (is this a story or a series of knocked-together events?) and a focus on craft (is there active narration, strong character development, solid plot and theme, a structure that fits the genre OR is it flat in several important areas of craft?) I’m also looking to see if my strengths are a good fit with the editing the writer needs. If not, I’ll suggest where the writer might look for editing support.

But if I see the necessary work on a manuscript as significant, I don’t give an editing quote. Instead I suggest the writer works with a writing coach and offer my services. I will still use my editorial skills but there is a big difference to how I apply them.

What is a writing coach?

A writing coach has a focus on your development as a writer. More than offering editorial advice and copyediting skills, a writing coach recognizes important areas that need developing and will work with you to improve them. It’s important to help you understand why something isn’t working well. Just as importantly, a writing coach will try to help you hold onto and use that understanding in your work. In my case, I’m like a cheerleader every time my clients apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript.

Serving as a kind of mentor, a coach spends time talking with you about your project, your intended audience and your overall goals as a writer. Consider a writing coach to be like an athletic trainer, someone who helps the writer focus on the skills needed with the desired goal as a constant beacon. A writing coach keeps you accountable and, even better, can help you approach the page with excitement and energy.

A writing coach is not your friend; instead, the coach is there to encourage and support your journey and to be clear about the steps needed to be successful. You should expect to see examples or suggestions that help your writing develop. If after a couple of sessions, you don’t feel good about the process or your progress, than it’s likely that writing coach is not for you.

Coaching is far more “organic” than editing. For example, I’ve recently worked with a writer on Point of View (POV). Once that writer gained a deeper understanding, I knew it was time for her to experiment with different approaches. My intention is to help her make decisions about writing a novel from one POV,  various POVs or as third-person narration with a limited POV.  Ultimately, it is her decision. But it’s a decision she’ll make with a clear focus on the kind of story she wants to tell and the best narration to achieve that.

Writing Coach on your shoulder

I’m far more interested in seeing the writer’s skill develop than in fixing a manuscript to “okay” level. If the story doesn’t resonate and the characters are flat stereotypes, readers won’t engage even if there are no typos and the grammar is perfect.

Nonetheless, I still make any necessary standard edits such as typos, grammar or textual errors. And I’ll comment on areas to develop: glitches in logic, lack of character development or a plot gone awry. But as a coach, I want my clients to understand what can strengthen their narrative skills. And I want them to apply that new understanding in subsequent work.

While I can’t let go of the editor, as a coach I want to support a writer to develop their storytelling techniques. When writers explore areas of craft that will enrich what they’re trying to share in their work, they reveal abilities they didn’t know they had.

Did you know?

Coaches for writing are also found in business. Clear written communication can be struggle for some people in the corporate world and with the speed of social media, one wrong word can create a huge backlash.

For another take on the role of a writing coach, take a look at author Ryan G. Van Cleave’s post on The Writer online.

Just one sentence

Just one sentence

Gwynn Scheltema

Something I’ve learned from my yoga practice is how to calm my mind and rid it of swirling daily mental debris by focusing on my breathing. I take a few deep breaths and listen to the sound of it, notice the temperature of the air as it enters and leaves my body, feel the rise and fall of my belly as I inhale and exhale — and before I know it, my heart rate slows and a calm comes over me. Daily problems are pushed away and I feel renewed.

Mental filters

I do the same kind of mental focussing at the start of freefall writing practice. I learned this from my friend and mentor, Sue Reynolds. She explained to me that when we do this kind of breathing practice, we put ourselves in a state similar to that we experience just before we fall asleep, where we are aware but not necessarily thinking in the same rigid patterns that we would when awake.

Medical researcher Valdas Noreika is his study “Intrusions of a Drowsy Mind” hypothesizes that when we enter sleep, the brain steadily dismantles the models and concepts we use to interpret the world, leading to moments of experience unconstrained by our usual mental filters.

I believe that, yes, this works for writing because we are putting aside our usual mental filters like the inner critic; the fears; the lack of self-confidence; the desire to be and do what others want of us and on and on…. But I also believe that the act of focussing is just as important.

Focussing

The beauty of focussing is that we need only think about (substitute “worry about”; “imagine”; “create”) one thing—one small thing—at a time.

At our recent Writescape Turning Leaves 2018 retreat, we were talking about writing every day: how hard it is; how necessary it is; how productive it is. One of the participants said that she demands only two sentences from herself daily.

She went on to explain that having made the effort to sit down with her WIP to write “only two sentences” she invariably writes a lot more, but that having such a small focused goal is not overwhelming and easily doable, so she does it.

Go Small to go Big

In an article in Glimmer Train, Jane Delury uses the technique of writing just one sentence to get unstuck.

She says: “This sentence doesn’t need to have anything to do with the work that you are wrestling. Maybe it’s about the chip in the coffee mug on your desk. Maybe it’s about a phone call with your mother last night. Or the patter of rain against the window. Maybe it’s about the doubt that your story or novel has stirred in you, concretized in an image that will form if you stay long enough between capitalized letter and period for the clichés to flow away, long enough for the appearance of magical corpuscles.”

Just one Sentence

There is power in writing just a sentence or two. When I attended a retreat with Peter Carver and Kathy Stinson, we did an exercise that I use often now to get my writing flowing. It combines the principles of continuous writing, like freefall, with the focused goal of “just one sentence”.

Set a timer for one minute (when you get good at this, increase to longer times) and write without ending your sentence. Use any and all conjunctions and other methods of joining phrases, such as: and; and then; but; until; because; however; etc. Just keep writing and writing and writing. Afterwards, it is easy to erase the bits you don’t want and fix the sentence structure.

I find that this exercise forces me to stay with a topic, character or scene and go further with it than I would normally have done, and that is when the good stuff comes—when the mental filters are gone and I’m focused.

Try it!

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