Understanding Underwriting II

Understanding Underwriting II

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.

As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.

Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.

More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:

  • physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
  • moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
  • wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)

When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.

The body is alive

The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.

Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.

Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.

  • Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
  • Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
  • Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.

Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.

Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.

Good vs evil vs a little of both

Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.

While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.

Motivation and goals

Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?

A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”

There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.

  • a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
  • what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
  • a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting

In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:

  • Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
  • Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
  • Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
  • And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?

Tip of the character iceberg

And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.

Understanding Underwriting

Understanding Underwriting

Ruth E. Walker

We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.

Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.

Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?

Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Sensory disconnect
  • Story disconnect

Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.

Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.

A scene needs geography

We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.

Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.

A scene needs action

Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.

Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.

For example:

He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.

A scene needs meaning

If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.

Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:

  • Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
  • Energize flat scenes with action
  • Slow down a scene for emotional impact
  • Reorder scenes for more logical progression

When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.

Find the balance

  • Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
  • Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
  • Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.

A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.

Overwriting Revisited

Overwriting Revisited

Ruth E. Walker

Last week’s blog post in The Top Drawer summarized the three deadly sins of overwriting: over-emotional writing (i.e., sentimentality); hammers and know-it-all writing. We kept our focus on sentimentality and over-the-top emotions.

This week, we’re heading to the workshop to focus on those hammers.

Hit that nail, again and again, and again…

My Writescape partner, Gwynn Scheltema, introduced me to the concept of hammers. She used to draw tiny hammers at the side of my text in any spot I “hammered home” a point for my readers. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten and one I imagine every time I come across it in my editing role.

The most common hammer I find is when a writer “shows” something (usually by creating a vivid image or two) and then “tells” it afterwards. As in:

Pay attention reader

Camille dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her cheeks were wet from the falling tears.

The first sentence is a nice show through character action (dabbing her eyes) that also reveals reaction (crying). Of course her cheeks are wet from the falling tears. It’s like the writer isn’t sure the reader has the whole picture.

Remember, your job is to show enough for readers to envision the scene — the reader’s job is to use their imagination and it’s hard for readers to do when you paint the complete picture.

Similarly, writers hammer home emotions: Camille dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She was so heartbroken, she’d begun to cry. Again, the action/reaction happens in the first line which shows us the emotion. Don’t water down the power of the action/reaction with an Are you getting this, reader moment.

In dialogue, writers hammer home emotions when they use qualified attributions like:

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said with surprise.

Or

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said incredulously.

The dialogue’s emotion is clear without adding descriptions to the attributive. Instead, use this opportunity to insert a beat or bit of business to underscore the emotion or enrich the development of your character or the plot.

“Oh my God! You didn’t.” Zhan balled his fists and turned away from his mother.

Just one more tiny nail

Another hammer is more challenging to recognize but no less important to know as you edit your work. This hammer comes when writers set something up and then, at the last moment, tag on a bit more to make sure readers get it. In this case, setting up that a character “paused.”

Releasing him, Daddy placed both his hands on Teddy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, appraising him head to toe as he paused for a moment or two.

If you read over the actions: hands placed on shoulders, holding at arm’s length, appraising head to toe — all that takes a moment or two so that last bit tagged on “as he paused for a moment or two” is unnecessary. Readers have already imagined the pause as they read.

Hammers often show up in early drafts, especially in drafts with an excess of passive writing. When I see a lot of adverbs and too few active verbs, I can expect to see a high number of hammers as well. Look for those “ly” words and see if a verb with energy can be used instead (walked happily: skipped/danced; ran swiftly: raced/rushed/fled; slowly walked up: crept/snuck up/step by step — there are plenty of active verbs out there.)

In our workshops, Gwynn and I often talk about adding new skills and techniques to your writer’s toolkit. But hammers are one tool you want to leave on the workbench and out of your writing.

Next week, we’ll be looking closely at Know-it-all moments, another common form of overwriting.


Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Ruth E. Walker

As an editor, I see a great deal of overwriting. Sometimes, it’s just an occasional dip that needs correcting — a moment of unnecessary description or repetition. But when overwriting overtakes the story, it slows pacing, deflects from the story’s core and distracts readers with “window dressing”. My job as an editor is to help writers see when they overwrite and discover ways to fix it.

Overwriting can find its roots in a lack of trust. A writer may not trust that the reader will “get it” and so puts in extra material to ensure complete understanding. Or a writer may not trust themselves– that they’ve created enough detail that the reader will see what is intended.

Three Deadly Sins of Overwriting

Overwriting covers a lot of sins in stories. Three of the most common forms of overwriting are: over-emotional writing, hammers, and know-it-all writing.

Over-emotional writing leads to sentimentality, theatricality and hyperbole. For today’s Top Drawer blog, I’ll focus on this one. But first, a quick summary of the other two. Next week we’ll take a closer view of them.

Hammers are those phrases and sentences that “hammer home” something a writer wants to make sure their reader “gets.” Repetition and over-use of imagery and metaphor can turn into hammers in your work.

Know-it-all writing is similar to hammers but it’s related to research or knowledge that the writer has and adds in to “prove” they know their stuff. Not restricted to historical writers, know-it-all writing can come across like an author “info dump” of details.

Let’s get emotional

Here’s an example of overwriting for emotional impact.

As she sat before her vanity mirror, Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted with a burning lump of pain and tears welled up from her eyelids and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin and plunked one after the other onto the letter she clutched in her left hand, resting on her lap.

Of course, without having the whole story before us, it’s hard to know what part of this scene is window dressing and what is essential to both plot and character development. But if we look closely at the work each part of this scene is doing, we could decide what to cut, what to tweak and what to leave as is.

So let’s examine:

As she sat before her vanity mirror — is this a reflection scene? Is it, literally, a mirror moment where a character reflects and realizes something about themselves? Is this “scene setting” even necessary? With “As she…” we’re pretty sure that Camilla is already sitting there, the line or two before this likely put her in front of that vanity. Trust your reader to make that connection.

Get right to the moment. Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. All hearts beat. Does it matter which hand? Cut beating and right. Your reader doesn’t need it.

Be true to your character. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him?

Is Camilla a drama queen? Is she petulant, angry or heartbroken? Is she all three at this moment or do her feelings progress? What is the overriding fear? Start with that. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. And then the deeper, primal fear: How could she live without him?

Squeezing her heart, flinging it to the floor and stomping all over it — that’s hyperbole and petulance — in this moment keep us in the sorrow, the grief. And as for sadness filling her very being, her soul — that’s far too cliché and a full on “tell”. Her behaviour — hand to heart, tears falling unchecked — shows us her sadness.

Show me the sorrow

And it’s there, in those last two descriptive sentences that with some careful paring and tweaks, we can move this scene from sentimentality to deep emotion. A simple constriction of the throat — don’t we all know that feeling when sorrow moves up from our aching hearts to tighten our throats? And tears that we can’t stop, coursing down our cheeks and sliding off our chins? Simple short images that call up our own experiences with sorrow –without any window dressing.

Camilla lowered her gaze and placed a hand over her heart. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted, and tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin onto the letter in her lap.

In any high-emotion scenes, you can double-check your approach and seek out any phrases or sentences that are more than what is necessary to convey the emotion. But also look for what is necessary to stay true to your character and your plot and then decide what can be cut or amended.

Just remember to ask yourself: am I trusting my reader? and am I trusting myself?

10 ways to doom your novel

10 ways to doom your novel

For the month of May 2020, we imagine many of you are thinking about your manuscripts. Isn’t it time to give yourself time away from focusing on hand washing and sterilizing the grocery bags? We think so. This month’s 10 on the 10th blog post is designed to help you spot story pot holes and set about fixing them. Happy writing!

1. Refuse to Revise: Perhaps someone, somewhere, sat down and wrote the perfect 87,000-word novel without making a single change, each word falling onto the page like an elegant dance of perfection. Um. No.

Truth is, for most of us, the successful novel or story is the result of repeated revisions. Not just proofreading and editing for spelling and grammar. We’re talking revisions. Dropping the first three chapters of backstory and starting just before the inciting incident. Rewriting the ending completely with a different purpose in mind than the original ending. Revision is not for the faint of heart, but getting your hands deep and dirty into your manuscript is part of shaping it into publisher-ready material.

2.  Start in a perfect world: A perfect world without any hint of discord or danger is a fantasyland. From kids who leave dirty dishes in the basement to the pestering pets demanding attention, our ordinary lives are full of irritations and disappointments. But remember to save the big issues for the inciting incident. That big crack in your main character’s world is what drives the narrative into the meat of the story.

3. Only develop your protagonist: You know everything about your main character from favourite pets to emotional wounds, from the layout of a childhood bedroom to motivations for every action taken.

But the other characters in the novel circle like stage actors waiting to appear and act for the sole convenience of the protagonist. Life and stories don’t work that way. All characters should act from their own motivations and experiences. Ditch the cardboard, and put flesh on everyone’s bones.

4. Avoid Danger or Fear:  For effective fiction, tension is necessary. There are degrees of tension used by writers. Some books (especially thrillers) can start with a bang but others gradually develop tension in a variety of ways. From a foreshadow (“Careful Maeve, that horse is skittish”) or bit of figurative language (looming dark skies, thunder in the distance, etc.), skillful writers learn to raise the stakes with tension as the story goes forward.

5. Rely on Expounding Exposition: Scenes with action, dialogue and tension propel your story forward. Lengthy passages of and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened will put your reader to sleep. Seek out places where you give information that could be better delivered in a scene between characters.

Ginny was worried that Dewa’an was afraid. It was his first sleepover at her house. She comforted him by reading a story and leaving the light on. 

OR

“Dewa’an, would you like me to stay and read you a story?”

He barely nodded, his eyes still wide and searching.

Ginny held up Stuart Little. “My kids loved this one. Maybe you will too.”

She’d barely read ten pages when he fell asleep. Ginny kept reading for two more pages just to be safe. Before she left the bedroom, she switched off the big light and turned on the wee nightlight on the dresser.

6.  Clog with Filler Scenes:  Sometimes we don’t realize we’re writing a filler scene. It’s a great scene with strong dialogue and character bits and foreshadowing and lots of great stuff. But if you look closer, it’s covering most — or even the same territory as a scene you wrote earlier. It’s advancing the same elements that the earlier scene advanced. 

Time to murder this darling. Or revise it so it’s doing new work to move your story forward. All scenes need to add forward progression with at least some of the following: answer some questions and raise more, enhance character qualities or introduce new ones, add or enhance setting details, and so on.  The scenes you write are meant to pull the reader’s engagement along to the next scene and all the way to The End.

7.  Use Droning Dialogue:  Dialogue in fiction is the illusion of conversation.  And it has specific jobs to do when you use it: convey information that relates to the plot, to the characters, the setting and so on. So like Filler Scenes, mindless chit chat does nothing to add to the reading experience. What does your current dialogue do to advance your story?  Learn to spot the fat and then pare it. And pare it again.

8.  Pack in Know-It-All stuff:  You’ve done your research. You know exactly how many steps it takes to get from the front door to the attic. The map of all the islands, ports, harbours and rocky shoals is ingrained in your mind and you want your readers to know you know. Don’t. Just don’t. There is a huge difference between a strategically placed reference or two to help ground your reader and a litany of details that soon become a list readers must wade through before getting back to the story.

9.  Display your vocabulary: Yes, it’s important for writers to be widely read and in the process, you’ve developed quite a vocabulary.  Whoopee for you, but like the know-it-all research, don’t try to impress your readers with a display and get in the way of the story. Use words suitable for the genre and audience and stand back and let them do their job.  Don’t excavate a cavity, just dig a hole.

10.  Be Predictable: It’s important that your characters react and that the story follows a logical path. But beware the characters that never veer from what we’ve come to expect or storylines that offer no surprises. Take this approach with your dialogue and try for exchanges that show two very different agendas. Many of our conversations don’t quite go as expected, like for this retail store customer:

“Good morning, I was wondering if you had any—”

“Did you close the door?”

“Ah. Yes. Now I was wondering—”

“They get in when you don’t close it tight.”

“I closed it. Now, listen, I’m looking for—”

“There’s one now. At your feet.”

“What— What is that?”

“A displaced soul.”

There you have it. Ten ideas to consider and help you take your manuscript forward. Happy writing.

10 Silent Energy Zappers

10 Silent Energy Zappers

Your story may be dynamite, but stylistically these energy zappers could be undermining it. They’re subtle but can do damage nonetheless. Avoid them to add energy, or use them to dampen when you want to.

  • Negative constructions 

“Is not” and “do not” sap energy, because readers prefer to hear about what something is or what someone does. Often negative construction is paired with weak verb choices too.

Ralph did not like the way Bill treated Liza. 
Better: Bill’s treatment of Liza disturbed/disgusted/horrified Ralph.
  • Wishy-washy constructions

Be confident about what you write. Is your character walking or not? Is the baby crying or not? Did Jimmy understand or not? Using started to/began to/seemed to constructions weaken the action.

Tom started to get up and close the door.
Better: Tom jumped up and closed the door.
  • Unnecessary tags in internal dialogue

When we are “in the character’s thoughts” seeing, feeling and hearing what the character sees, feels and hears, using “I see”or “I hear” or “I feel” is unnecessary, and distances the reader and lowers energy.

I hear a phone ring in the telephone booth.
Better: A phone rings in the telephone booth.
  • Nominalization

Avoid turning an action word into the subject of the sentence i.e.  using the noun equivalent of a verb. To up the energy, re-order the sentence to let the verb do the work.

They had a discussion about .
Better: they discussed
  • Verb weakeners

Re-order the sentence to eliminate these “weakeners”: need to; should; might; could

You need to get motivated.  
Better: Motivate yourself.
  • Neutrality – non-human references.

Readers feel close to people not things. So whenever you refer to a person in a non-human way, you distance the reader.

If you're the type of individual who likes luxury, Gateway Spa is for you.  
Better: If you love luxury, Gateway Spa is for you.
  • Redundancies

So easy to do. How often do we hear about the new baby; or joining together. By default, babies are “new”; joining things results in them being “together”.  Restating the obvious sucks energy.

Sam kneeled down to examine the sword 
Better: Sam kneeled to examine the sword
  • Passive construction /Grammar expletives

No, we aren’t talking swear words here. In grammar circles, a grammar expletive is any word or phrase that does not contribute meaning. The most common culprits are: It is; there are; there is; etc.at the beginning of a sentence.

It is two hours before the sun rises.  
Better: The sun rises in two hours.
  • Meaningless intensifiers.

Really, very, so.What is the difference between a tasty dinner and a really tasty dinner? If you want a degree more of tastiness, use a stronger verb rather than an intensifier. A delicious dinner.

He knew Dana was very smart.
Better: He knew Dana was brilliant.
  • Latinate vs. Anglo-saxon words

Latinate words (those ending in -ate. -ite. -ation and other Latin bases) usually refer to areas of law, administration; government and abstraction. It’s a throw-over from the days when England was governed by Rome and later by France. Anglo Saxon words were the tongue of the governed, the workers – words to do with farming and labouring. That’s why they carry a more earthy energy.

He excavated a cavity. (Latinate)
He dug a hole. (Anglo-Saxon)
On Looking Again

On Looking Again

Ruth E. Walker

At the end of every summer, I’m on the hunt. My prey? Bushes loaded with blackberries. Our Haliburton Highlands cottage property and the nearby road is thick with wild blackberry bushes and, depending on the year, they can offer a treasure trove of tartly sweet fruit.

Berries or no berries, those bushes are also loaded with thorns. Even the leaves of the blackberry bush are ready to tangle in your hair with a grip almost as powerful as super glue. But I persevere.

Why?

Blackberry jam.

I feel just like a pioneer as I gather those berries and the resulting jam is a delightful mix of sugary sweet and tangy tartness. I’ll admit that hunting for berries is not an easy task. The nasty thorns, for one thing. And the sneaky way blackberries can hide from even the most diligent picker.

Sneaky? Yes! This morning, I picked what I thought would mash down into 3 1/2 cups of crushed berries. I picked my bushes clean of ripe fruit so surely…nope. So I added my few blueberries and my last two strawberries. Surely now…nope, again.

I’d scoured those bushes and brought in what I could and it still wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, I know ripe blackberries can hide under leaves and deep inside the undergrowth. So I slipped back outside and…

Fresh eyes

A treasure trove waited for me. As I picked the berries I’d completely missed just two hours before, I thought about how editing is a lot like this. In two hours, the sun had shifted the shadows from early morning. The glistening ripe berries were there all along but in shadow.

Just like the typos and grammar glitches and dropped plot threads can elude me until I put the writing away for a while, the berries needed me to take a second look with fresh eyes.

It’s my pleasure to work with other writers as their editor and sometimes, their writing coach. While it may be easier to find typos, grammar glitches and dropped plot threads in others’ work, it is still important that I take a second look.

It’s not about me

For me, another look at a manuscript is a check for what I missed the first time. It’s also important that I consider my more substantive edits. Maybe I was tired and misunderstood the writer’s intent. Or more importantly, maybe I’m putting more of “me” into the edit.

It’s important to honour the writer’s voice, their style and their intent. If my coaching or edits put any of that off course, then I’m not doing my job.

As an editor and as a writing coach, I work on helping the writer discover their strengths and pay attention to any areas they need to develop. I might offer a suggested approach to a particular scene or ways to build on character development. The writer can take my suggestions and make them their own. Or freely reject the suggestion and take a different approach — one that fits their style and voice.

But when it is about me…

In my own creative work, that second look is vital. It’s especially effective when I’ve put some distance between my first draft and the drafts to follow. Just like those berries and the shifting light and shadows, I can completely miss a treasure trove in my own manuscript unless I give it time enough for my fresh eyes.

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.

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes what happens in our lives has a weird way of being reflected in our writing journeys. It’s a bit like the universe has a sense of humour. And sometimes, we get to laugh. Or at least smile.

At the end of winter at the cottage, it was lovely to see the deep snowdrifts finally melt. Of course, there were also lots of cold snaps, so that the melt was often stopped in its tracks. That included on the roof of our screened porch. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. We were unable to get up to the cottage for a couple of weeks to check for ice. The ice dam formed. And then the April rain came.

Soon enough, it was raining inside the screened porch. A dozen buckets could barely keep up.

So my husband and I got on top of the roof, for hours scraping off the ice build up. Finally, all the ice was cleared off.

Sifting through a mess

But the damage was done. Not only did we have to replace the roof but some walls, insulation and flooring had to be ripped out. Then, time to shore up the foundation. Add new load-bearing beams.  

Given some moments to rest between ripping out and building back up, I had some time to reflect. It is, I thought, a lot like editing.

Which is what I am doing with my novel in progress. The story explores some turning points in my character’s childhood, teen years and his life as a young man. As the novel is based on an old Breton fairy tale, I wrote earlier drafts all in chronological fashion. Once upon a time…to…They lived happily (ahem) ever after.

But I’ve come to realize the novel isn’t quite working in that structure.

Renovate buildings…or books

So I’m ripping out walls (chapters.) Re-positioning the roof (plot.) Shoring up the foundation (thematic elements.)  And adding load-bearing beams (character development.)

But, like the repairs to our screened porch, I’m making discoveries as I go.

If you have to re-position the screened room roof, you need to consider the roof line of the main (original) building. So, as I’m playing with the plot, I wonder how far I can deviate from the original fairy tale.

Pretty far as it turns out. Just like the screened porch’s roof revision.

Advantages to major repairs

The porch’s new roof line meant walls needed to be built higher. So why not add regular windows instead of the nailed-in screens if we’re doing that? And how about a patio door to bring in more light? And let’s insulate under the floor instead of just the walls. A 3-season room takes on new life for all four seasons.

So as I work with my novel’s plot, I’m bringing in new characters, new scenes, new possibilities to raise the stakes for my character. I’m picking the pockets of other old fairy tales, travelling the world of fable and fabrication to discover ways to enrich the story. Taking a page from the braided essay format, I’m tossing aside chronological structure and weaving together childhood, teen years and adult life.

Will it work? Well, I hope so. But even if I end up back with the chronological beginning-to-end structure, I have far more to work with than when I finished the original draft.

It’s a whole new look.  And I think I’m moving in.

Workshop News

If you want to see Ruth’s Haliburton cottage porch reno in progress, come to her all-day workshop Saturday June 15. Create Compelling Characters will offer writers a series of hands-on exercises and inspiring explorations of character in fiction, memoir and nonfiction. Nestled among the pines, overlooking the lazy river, it’s a location that holds inspiration and the echoes of writers who’ve written their novels in The Rustic.